Bill forces school boards to back teachers

Boards could be fined for misdemeanors

Posted: Monday, February 07, 2000

It should be a crime for school boards not to back up their teachers.

That's the opinion of Eagle River state Rep. Fred Dyson, and he's sponsoring a bill to make it so.

House Bill 253 would make it a misdemeanor for school boards to punish teachers for appropriately disciplining a student.

The bill was scheduled for a hearing this afternoon in the House Judiciary Committee. It has already passed the House Health Education and Social Services Committee, which is chaired by Dyson, a Republican.

A state teachers' organization thinks the measure is a great idea.

``I believe it's impossible to teach in a situation where you do not have discipline,'' said John Cyr, president of the National Education Association-Alaska. ``This bill gives us a measure of accountability.''

Some school board members, however, are skeptical about the bill.

Kathi Gillespie, an Anchorage School Board member, said making school boards subject to criminal prosecution is not the answer to problems with discipline.

Elections and recall petitions are the proper way to deal with a board member who's not performing properly, she said. ``It's the community's job to take care of it, rather than through statute.''

Dyson said he's pushing the bill partly in response to reports of teachers not being supported when they tried to enforce school discipline policies.

He pointed to an incident in Hydaburg last fall in which a 13-year-old student brought a realistic-looking toy handgun to school. The student, who was the daughter of a school board member, received what some thought was a lenient punishment - a one-day suspension. Four Hydaburg teachers quit their jobs shortly thereafter.

The bill would have schools develop standards for behavior and safety that reflect community values. Schools also would develop policies and procedures for maintaining those standards and for authorizing teachers to remove students from the classroom.

A teacher, teacher's assistant, principal or others responsible for students couldn't be fired or otherwise punished for enforcing those standards, according to the bill. The school board as an organization could be subject to up to a $200,000 fine for violating the law, according to an Wes Keller, an aide to Dyson.

Juneau School Board President Stan Ridgeway said he's not familiar enough with the legislation to comment on it.

Gillespie, the Anchorage board member, had concerns about a section of the bill that calls for policies to be adopted authorizing school employees to use ``reasonable and appropriate force'' to maintain classroom safety and discipline. That could potentially give a ``blank check'' to employees to go too far, she said.

Carl Rose, executive director of the Association of Alaska School Boards, said he's afraid the legislation will lead to court battles when teachers and their superiors disagree about what is reasonable and appropriate.

``I understand the intent of the law. I believe I support what the bill is trying to do,'' he said. ``But it becomes somewhat convoluted.''

Bruce Johnson, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Education, said the agency supports an incremental approach to making schools safe and ``this bill assists with that goal.''

Although the bill need not define ``reasonable and appropriate force,'' he said, communities will need to define that for themselves and then train teachers about what that means in their schools.

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