Gowanda develops new policy regarding fraternization

GOWANDA — Throughout the school year, the Gowanda Board of Education has been in the process of reviewing its school policies to ensure they are up to date and appropriate. At the most recent meeting, the board conducted a first read-through of a new policy that other districts have adopted in recent years: non-fraternization between district employees and students.

Although parts of the new policy are addressed by the district’s ethics policies, this is the first time the district has had a specific policy that details fraternization between employees and students. Board members Mark Nephew and Janet Vogtli expressed concern about the first draft of the policy. “This has to be something that we hang our hat on, especially if we go after an employee for violating it,” Nephew stated. “There’s not enough specificity here. It is a little nebulous in terms of what it says and what guidance it gives our employees.”

Nephew compared it to a similar policy of Cold Spring Harbor, another New York public school, and pointed to some key differences. Both policies list the following examples of inappropriate behaviors and forms of communication:

¯ Flirting, suggestive comments, physical displays of affection, inappropriate gifts, dating, requests for sexual activity and sexual activity/relations.

¯ Providing alcohol or drugs to students.

¯ Frequent personal communication unrelated to coursework or official school matters either in person or via phone, email, instant messaging, text messaging or through social networking websites.

Both policies address how students and employees should report inappropriate behaviors or communication. Retaliation against the complainants, victims, witnesses or investigators is also forbidden by both policies.

However, the Cold Spring Harbor policy specifically forbids any social media interaction between employees and students or their parents: “Adults shall not follow or accept requests from current students and from their parents to be friends or connections on personal social networking sites and shall not create any networking site for communication with students other than those approved by the district for this purpose.”

Additionally, the Cold Spring Harbor policy notes exceptions to personal relationships, as in cases where a student is friends with an employee’s child or interacts with the employee through civic, religious, scouting or other organizations. The Cold Spring Harbor policy delineates how electronic communication should be made from teachers, coaches and advisors to class, team or club members, except when it concerns an individual student’s medical or academic privacy.

Referring to these examples, Nephew voiced his reservations about the policy services from Erie 1 BOCES, with whom the district has a contract. In years’ past, the district had a contract with the New York State School Boards Association for policy services. “I have had misgivings since day one,” Vogtli agreed. “They are basically giving us templates, and we are filling them in.”

Board president Cindy Sutherland asked Nephew what prompted him to research other districts’ policies. “The staff/student relations has come up in the board over the years, so it was a concern that I wanted to make sure we had what we needed,” he explained.

District Clerk Kathy Ferneza pointed out that the main issue is that the district does not have a fraternization policy at all. She added that the NYSSBA policy service did not create policies that were specific or detailed enough for the district, and that Erie 1 BOCES could meet that need. “We need legally researched, up-to-date policies,” Ferneza stated. “We don’t have that right now. Over the 10 years I have been here, we tried to do that on our own, and I think we fell short. Right now, we need a complete overhaul.”

Ferneza emphasized that no one policy service is tailor-made for the district; however, she feels Erie 1 BOCES provides a reliable legal basis for the policies, to which the district may add their specific ideas. The board agreed to consult with Erie 1 BOCES about the legality of suggested changes to the policy and conduct a second reading after revisions are made. Ferneza expects Erie 1 BOCES to have a revised version ready by the end of the month.

The next meeting of the Gowanda Central School Board of Education is Wednesday, Jan. 9 with a workshop at 6 p.m., followed by the regular meeting at 7 p.m. in the middle school library.