Students won't speak out about harassment or discrimination in the classroom if they are afraid of reprisals by teachers or principals, a delegation of student leaders told the county school board last week.
"Many students may be intimidated if they have to say anything against a teacher," said Andrea Clark, a senior at Hammond High School and legislative liaison for the Howard County Association of Student Councils (HCASC). "It could stop students from coming, even if something is really wrong in their classes."
Six students testified at a board hearing on proposed changes in the grievance policy. The HCASC decision to lobby for changes in the policy came after an initial discussion by HCASC officers at an orientation session, followed by debate at the student government organization's assembly Thursday.
The grievance policy, adopted in 1973, allows high school students who believe they have been discriminated against to bring the issue before a grievance committee. The committee is made up of three students and three teachers from their school.
The policy defines discrimination broadly as a "difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit." It sets no penalties, but requires the committee to find a way to resolve the grievance.
The policy came up for revision last summer as part of a comprehensive overhaul of school board policies that began in the 1989-1990 school year.
Richard Wright, student activities coordinator, said he was surprised by the strength of emotion the issue generated among students.
"Because the grievance policy is hardly ever used, that statistically would lead you to the conclusion that there aren't many problems. But when we bring up this policy to students, we hear that they're not using it because they're afraid to use it," he said.
Wright said he did not have available a total number of grievances heard by school committees during the 1989-1990 school year because that information is not reported to the Department of Education by individual principals.
Andrea's comment that students would stifle grievances rather than face the possibility of reprisals was voiced earlier at the HCASC session by several students.
"If someone goes to the (grievance) committee, I think the relationship between that teacher and student would be strained," said Shamim Sinnar, a sophomore at Wilde Lake High School.
A poll of the 95 student delegates who attended an HCASC meeting Thursday revealed none who had ever taken a grievance to the committee and just 15 who were aware that it existed.
Clark conceded that many students don't know their rights, although the information is presented at orientation programs for freshmen and new students, and published in the school calendar.
Students' suggestions for changes included: *Allowing an advocate to take a role similar to a lawyer's in representing a group of students who want to pursue a grievance. The student advocate would present the case, protecting the anonymity of the students who filed the complaint.
An advocate would represent groups of students. Individual students with grievances would be required to forfeit anonymity and testify before the committee.
*Changing the selection process for the committee. Currently, the three student members are chosen by the student government, two teachers are chosen by the faculty and one teacher is selected by the principal. The students suggested that the student government, the faculty and administration each choose one student and one teacher for the committee.
*Committee hearings should be conducted with testimony from the students and teachers involved in the grievance, rather than by having each side submit written comments to the committee.
*Any grievance that involves the school principal should be heard by the school board.
The proposed policy currently gives the school board final authority on grievances not resolved at individual schools.