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NHCS board set to vote on seclusion and restraint policy next month

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Rachel Keith
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WHQR
New Hanover County School Board meeting on October 18, 2022

At Tuesday’s New Hanover County School Board meeting, members voted 6 to 1, with Chair Stephanie Kraybill dissenting, to put a discussion on the agenda for the district’s policy on seclusion and restraint — and tackled a host of other issues, including the district's definition of 'fondling' and the controversial calendar debate.

The latest version of the school's policy on seclusion and restraint, which came out of the board's policy committee, limits the use of these practices to 'the most rare circumstances' — for example, de-escalating physical violence when all other interventions have failed — for the remainder of this school year. For the upcoming academic year, 2023-2024, the seclusion rooms would no longer be operational.

Early in the meeting, members took a vote on putting the amended proposal up for a vote, but that failed 5 to 2, with Members Judy Justice and Vice Chair Stephanie Walker supporting the vote.

Advocates Sandy Eyles and Peter Rawitsch, who have pushed to end the practice of seclusion and restraint, both said they rushed down to the meeting when they discovered that the policy amendment that recently emerged out of committee might get a vote that evening.

But after a discussion led by Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Julie Varnam, board members agreed it would be best to wait to vote until their November 1 meeting, which would then give teachers, staff, and the community time to weigh in on the amended policy for seclusion and restraint.

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This shows some of the proposed policy language.

Amending the definition of ‘fondling’ fails

The board voted 4 to 3, with Members Stephanie Walker, Judy Justice, and Pete Wildeboer dissenting, to maintain the Title IX Office’s definition of ‘fondling,’ which is a person touching a student under the clothes.

Title IX Coordinator Jarelle Lewis maintains that an ‘over the clothes’ fondling violation would be dealt with at the school level under the district’s bullying and harassment policy, and wouldn’t necessarily trigger an official Title IX investigation.

Lewis said if this legal definition was changed then his office would be overloaded with complaints, which would then supersede his office’s other investigations.

He argued that victims of fondling over the clothes would receive a quicker resolution if it was handled within that school’s administration. An official Title IX investigation, according to Lewis, is an arduous process, which follows the guidelines of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Lewis added that if the board changed the definition that the reports would be “astronomical” and that his office wouldn’t be able to properly respond to them.

Board Member Nelson Beaulieu said those members who wanted to change the definition would, “make it weaker to appear stronger.” He reiterated that Lewis was the expert the district hired on Title IX issues and that the board should defer to him.

Lewis said to conduct a formal investigation process the district’s investigators (Lewis himself and John Henry, Title IX investigator) would have to give prior notice to all parties involved before interviews take place. The accused have specific due process rights — and cannot be treated as “guilty” before an investigation is complete. But Lewis added, “it’s too much due process if you ask me.”

There are also two 10-day periods for the parties, the accused and the victim, to share information and evidence. Then after the investigation is complete, the report is sent to Varnam — or another decision maker — to determine whether there was a violation of Title IX policy. The parties do have the ability to appeal to the Board of Education. And if they do, then they are allowed a hearing.

Beaulieu said, “Please understand if someone accidentally brushed up against somebody and a student would have had a problem with it – they would have to investigate that and give it the same due process as a rape.”

He continued to say, this move to change the definition of fondling would “decentralize the Title IX Department.”

But Wildeboer, Justice, and Walker still weren’t pleased with where the discussion was going.

Wildeboer asked how many cases Lewis’s office fields. He said they receive reports “frequently,” but that doesn’t always mean these turn into formal complaints that would precipitate an investigation.

Walker added, “I don’t think you’re going to get a thousand reports. I trust people to know when they’ve been assaulted,” referring to if someone were to complain about over-the-clothes fondling.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s above or below [the clothes]," she said.

Justice asked Lewis if his office could train the district’s principals to do Title IX investigations if his office is overburdened with cases.

He said, “Yes, they could, but they would have to be trained under federal Title IX regulations.”

Update on the district’s bus routes 

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson gave an update on the district’s bus schedules.

Anderson told the board and the public it wasn’t the “best start for our bus transportation, and our students and families deserve better, and we own that.”

He added that since the start of the school year, the district has reduced the number of late bus arrivals from 40 to 10. They've also reduced the average time the buses are late, Anderson said.

More specifically, late buses for Holly Shelter Middle School have been significantly reduced, according to Anderson, but they’re still working on these late arrival times for Laney High and Trask Middle School.

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Anderson provided an example of how the district is tracking late arrival times at Holly Shelter Middle.

When board members asked about what happened at the start of the year with the bus schedules, Anderson said he underestimated the student demand for buses and the overall availability of drivers.

Currently, the district still needs an additional 16 drivers, according to Anderson. And they still need bus monitors and aides.

He added that the district did hire more drivers last year but that didn't offset the number of employees who resigned or retired.

And they're also short on substitutes for those drivers. Last week, Anderson mentioned, there were 12 drivers out sick and office staff and mechanics had to step in to cover routes.

Although there were a number of drivers absent, Anderson said his department did do a “better job communicating delays.”

Kraybill asked Anderson about the district’s recruitment process for drivers.

Anderson said that they do reimburse them for any expenses after they’re hired. The reason for the reimbursement after they’ve accepted a job with the district, according to Anderson, the district doesn't want to pay for someone to get their commercial driver’s license (CDL) certification and then have them turn around and work for a trucking company.

Anderson also used the opportunity to say to the public that too many cars pass school buses, which puts the district’s students in harm's way. He added the problem isn’t unique to New Hanover County but is both a statewide and national problem.

The Department of Public Safety has information on what drivers should do when a school bus is stopped — it’s also codified in North Carolina law.

Other board votes

The board also passed an update to its committees in a 4 to 3 vote, with Justice, Walker, and Wildeboer dissenting — those members said they weren't made aware of certain changes to the committees. However, Kraybill said members had plenty of time to review them.

Specifically for the calendar committee, after controversy erupted over this year’s school calendar, the board unanimously decided to send the logistics of the calendar committee back to the policy committee.

When reviewing the makeup of the committee, Kraybill said that the chair is Dr. Patrice Faison, who is the chief academic officer for the district. Since the calendar is a district-related function, a board member would not ever be chair of it.

Walker said this move would put the district at a disadvantage — and that ending the high school semester after the holidays was a “bad administrative decision.” And that, she didn’t want to be “led astray again.”

Justice also said that there were too many calendar committee members — that they needed to cut the number down, especially representation from Central Office.

Board Member Hugh McManus said he wanted to ensure that when they decide on the members that attendance “should be mandatory.”

Earlier in the meeting, members voted 5 to 2 to allow students to continue with their field trips with Carolina Ocean Studies. Kraybill and McManus dissented because the district doesn’t have the proper insurance, around $3 million worth, to cover the boat rides with the vendor.

Members who supported the continuation of the trips said that they do have $1 million in current insurance, and they can get district parents to sign a permission slip in order for their student to attend the trip, acknowledging they don’t have sufficient coverage if an accident were to happen.

Justice said that the district can’t “wrap the kids in bubble wrap,” but Kraybill and McManus maintained that it was irresponsible to allow students to attend the trips without enough insurance. McManus even mentioned the school board's current civil suits, saying the district doesn’t need more exposure to liability.

Other discussions

Board members also received updates about graduation credits: students will now have to graduate with 28 credits, but they still can apply for a waiver for extenuating circumstances to graduate with only 22 credits. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust said this is not an early graduation option, but one that would be granted if a student meets the criteria of the reduced credit option.

Another point of discussion was the district’s individualized education plan (IEP) prior written notice policy. Varnam said that this is solely a document of the IEP team's decisions. It provides clarity on what the district intends to do and what it can’t do.

If a parent feels the IEP is not being followed, this document would provide the grounds to file a grievance. After any official changes to an IEP, in concert with the parents, the district has three days to provide parents with the updated IEP document. And if the document is incorrect, parents can contact the district to amend it in accordance with their student records policy, Varnam said.

Justice asked Varnam if parents could record the IEP team meeting to ensure they have the correct information about what was discussed. Varnam said yes, they can, but the district would like to know so that they can record the process, too.

Earlier in the board meeting, Justice also tried to get the district to change the policy on athletic ticket sales — but her motion failed.

According to Kelly Lewis, the district’s athletic director, the school system switched to online ticketing during the pandemic. They used to have vendor GoFan but realized their fees were too high so they went with Hometown ticketing.

Justice took issue even with the current fee amounts — and wanted the district to return to a cash-based policy, but Kelly said the future of athletic tickets will be online. He also said that students would not be turned away if they couldn’t access the online tickets.

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The district's breakdown of online ticketing fees.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR