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John Florez: How safe are our schools? Board members must enforce their policies

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In this photo taken Aug. 18, 2012, a bus monitor greets a student.

Associated Press

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"Take care of the small stuff fast and the big stuff doesn't happen." That was the answer my friend gave when I asked about her success in running a business; if there was a rag left on the service floor, it was picked up right away. It was the standard management set and rewarded or enforced immediately. And so it is with school bullying, take care of the small stuff fast, and big stuff doesn't happen.

Last week's death of a student whose parents and peers felt was due to bullying by other students is a sober reminder of the potential hazards students face daily, and sometimes, constantly. That's in spite of the labyrinth of laws, regulations and training and compliance staff to protect students. Schools are for more than academic learning, though some would argue otherwise. It's where we all learn how to live in a civil society.

Today, schools are larger, more crowded, diverse, complex, impersonal and for some, more frightening. Students come from different backgrounds — single parent, two parents working, under stress trying to survive. Some come with "invisible handicaps" — family violence, hunger, illness, crowded living quarters and having to fend for themselves. Then they come to a fast-moving and impersonal environment, apprehensive, trying to find their identity and still be ready to learn. Schools often become cauldrons of anger, stress and frustration, suppressed and on a slow simmer. When students don't feel safe, learning becomes secondary.

The Utah State Board of Education is responsible for the general control and supervision of the public education system; however, they have allowed our schools to become rudderless and overwhelmed with conflicting, outdated polices that are not monitored or enforced. They keep making more policies and regulations designed to protect the institution, rather than the safety and interest of the students. While they are required to assure school districts are in compliance with all state and federal regulations, they don't appear to have any method for reporting, monitoring or enforcing their regulations. It prevails throughout the system, from district school boards to local schools.

The State School Board is required to have schools inform parents, students and employees of their rights under applicable civil rights and bullying policies; however, it seems they do so only once a year, rather than at meaningful times when patrons need them. It limits the ability for parents and students to exercise their rights, and administrators can absolve themselves of any responsibility since they "followed the policy." School officials are also required to have a safe and non-discriminatory environment, and when a violation of those policies occurs, all employees are responsible for violating policy if they "know or should have known," and did not report the violation. Unknown rights are no rights at all!

State and local school board members have the responsibility for the education of our children; however, they have allowed bureaucrats to manage our schools without exercising their statutory responsibilities that make sure administrators carry out the intent of their policies. If we are to have safe schools free from harassment, intimidation, and impermissible discrimination, then board members must monitor their policies and have a reporting system that allows them to assure schools where all children are safe and an environment where they are free to further their education. That requires they enforce their policies, not turn a blind eye. The buck stops with them.

To do that, they must do what my friend said, "Take care of the small stuff fast and the big stuff doesn't happen."

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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