Parents and students challenged the school board Thursday on its proposal to discipline students who are involved in hate-bias incidents. Although several complained that the plan does not go far enough, one parent suggested that educators kill the idea altogether.
"You're opening up a can of worms," said James Oglethorpe, a Columbia parent who testified at Thursday night's board meeting.
"Enforcement will be a time-consuming nightmare for your administrators, and people will fight you in court," he said.
The proposal -- called the Educational and Personal Rights Policy -- aims to stiffen an existing policy that condemns hate-bias acts but does not define such acts or provide guidelines to discipline students who engage in them.
The proposal requires that students who are involved in hate-bias incidents receive counseling, participate in an educational program and bring their parents in for a conference. Currently, no guidelines other than a general student conduct code exist.
Oglethorpe told the board it should consider First Amendment rights and budgetary restraints.
"I can visualize they will come up with a list of words that cannot be said in any context," he said. "If that is the case, that will be a stifling of speech. If the county has to defend itself in court over this policy, it will spend a significant amount of money."
"I'm not going to say that every word is going to eliminate every problem," responded Dana Hanna, board vice-chairman. "But the board needs to take a stand."
The proposal intends to educate and discipline students who harass, defame, curse, threaten or intimidate other students on the basis of their race, color, religion, physical or mental disability, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.
So far this year, police have recorded at least eight incidents at the schools, most of them involving spray-painted racial slurs.
School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey said after the meeting that he'll ask the board to postpone any action on the proposal to allow more time to look at concerns that were raised. He said he'll form an ad-hoc committee to develop a plan to give staff and teachers sensitivity training.
"It's obvious it can't all be done in this year, but at least we can start," said Hickey.
He said he'll also be putting together a committee within his own staff to find a qualified person to teach principals how to identify hate-bias incidents in workshops this summer.
Parents like Mildred Boyd, who is involved in the Black Student Achievement Program, and Evonnie Gbadebo, whose daughter was the target of a racial incident at Glenwood Middle School in December, lambasted the board for not including provisions to counsel students who are victims of hate-bias acts.
"As a mother of a victim, I am absolutely outraged at the oversight," said Gbadebo. "There is no mention of the victim. How dare you?
"It is like looking at a woman who was battered by her husband and asking her, 'What did you do to make him batter you?' "
Parent Lessie Harvey came with a list of concerns, among them, how to protect children who report hate-bias acts, how to respond to false accusations and what kinds of educational programs to implement.
She also questioned the schools' decision to allow principals to report hate-bias incidents, saying she was skeptical that principals would acknowledge that such serious conflicts exist in their schools.
David Marker of the county Human Rights Commission suggested that schools report hate-bias incidents to the county and the Human Rights Commission.
"Given the historical track record and general lack of confidence of the community in the [schools'] Office of Human Relations, it is vital that information on the frequency and type of these violations be tracked by the county's Office of Human Rights, just as the police department reports all similar incidents to the Office of Human Rights," he said.
Hanna said he was wary of instituting such a step.
"I don't want to be adding more levels of bureaucracy," he said.
Jamie Kendrick, a former school board associate member, called the proposal a step in the right direction, but said more is needed. Among other things, he suggested expanding the Black Student Achievement Program to include all students, broadening the peer mediation program and sponsoring cultural activities at all schools.