Editorial – Schools: Update disciplinary policies

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It’s time. All school districts in Taos County and the Moreno Valley, if they haven’t done so already, need to review and update their safety and disciplinary policies.

Then they need to make those basic policies available to parents and law enforcement at the least.

Schools have always had the important, tough job educating children and teens. The job has become tougher as society and communities, including Taos, have changed, sometimes dramatically.

Public school teachers in Taos don’t get to focus on teaching. They have to worry about whether their students have had anything to eat that day, are safe at home and have someone who can help with their homework. They have to worry about whether, when they discipline a student, they’ll be backed up by parents, guardians and the administration. They have to worry whether their students are on drugs.

And increasingly in the last decade, they’ve had to worry about how to keep their students safe at school.

A slate of recent incidents involving verbal threats or threatening behavior at three different schools in Taos County raised concerns among parents, staff and other students. In part that is because they are concerned with how those incidents were handled.

At least a couple of the incidents weren’t reported to school administrators or law enforcement for two to three days after they occurred. In at least one incident, a juvenile witness was interviewed regarding a threat, without a parent or guardian present and then was named in a police report.

A copy of the 40-page student handbook provided by the district to The Taos News outlines the school’s policies for assessing and reporting threats and disciplining students who make them.

We believe that handbook needs updating. The handbook only notes two times specifically when law enforcement might be called: to help confiscate electronic devices from stubborn students and to address gang activity.

It does not mention how and when a school resource officer will be called in to investigate other types of threats. It does not spell out how and when parents or guardians must be present for interviews by school personnel or how reports to law enforcement will be handled. It does not specify how families and guardians will be alerted in the case of a man-made or natural disaster.

One administrator has said school threats are handled on a case-by-case basis. “Each individual school and principal is responsible for creating a plan and procedures for threats or emergencies,” Taos High School Principal Robert Trujillo told a reporter recently. “Any threat to students, the school, or staff are investigated immediately. Interviews are conducted with thoroughness to determine next steps. Since each threat is unique, next steps are determined by the results of the investigation.”

While it makes sense to handle each case on its merits, without a better written policy, each school is free to handle threats differently and perhaps, not quickly, fairly or well.

Everyone knows kids say dumb, even mean things, sometimes things that could be taken as a threat. Sometimes what they say is because they are being bullied by other students or other adults in their lives. Sometimes they are just pushing the bounds of what is acceptable in the adult world.

It’s important not to overreact. But at the same time, it is important to make sure everyone in a school community understands what is acceptable in actions or language, what is not, and how students or staff will be disciplined for infractions.

Without that, it is easy for the school to get blamed for not handling these situations correctly.

That’s not fair to them or anyone else involved.

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