Wednesday May 12, 2010

BENNINGTON -- The Mount Anthony Union school board hosted an informational presentation Monday from its attorney about the correct procedure for disciplinary hearings.

Board’s role defined

Attorney Steven Stitzel’s presentation detailed the role of the school board and administration in discipline hearings in which students may be suspended for 10 or more days or expelled from school, which school board Chairwoman Sean-Marie Oller said occurs about two or three times a year in the district.

"I think it is a good thing to do refreshers on such topics, not necessarily because folks don’t remember, but because in one’s daily life they may not have the familiarity with hearing procedures ... and many times education laws and procedures change over time," Oller said Wednesday.

Oller said the board invited board members from other districts in the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and the SVSU Policy Committee to learn from the presentation, which was one of a number of informational presentations the board plans to host in coming months.

Stitzel went into detail about the hearing procedures that should be followed and the rights students have, including to remain anonymous and to have an opportunity to share their side of the story. Student discipline hearings must be done in executive session, which the board can enter to "take up a student matter," and should only include the board, the student and his or her parents or guardians, school administration, a clerk and legal counsel for the student if the family chooses. If the student is represented by an attorney, Stitzel said the board should always have its legal counsel included in the hearing as well.

During the hearing, all sides have the opportunity to explain the situation, ask questions, hear from witnesses and cross-examine those who testify. Stitzel recommended the superintendent make a disciplinary recommendation to the board, which the student and parents can respond to. The administration can refer to prior conduct of the student and the board may consider those incidents when deciding the extent of discipline.

Burden of proof on district

When all parties have said what they need to say, everyone except for school board members, its legal counsel and the clerk are asked to leave so the board can make its determination.

The burden of proof must be on the school district, Stitzel said, so the board must first decide whether it believes the alleged incident took place and then what the course of action should be. Action does not need to be taken in open session and Stitzel said the decision is a student record, and therefor not public information.

The board must issue a written decision with its determination and the basis for it to the student.

Oller said in the past the board has asked administrators who did not present evidence to remain with it after excusing testifying parties, but Stitzel said that is not recommended.

"For the most part we were doing things correctly, and I think we could just do things a little better as we go forward," Oller said.

Another thing the board has done differently from what Stitzel suggested has been taking the recommendation for a student’s punishment from a school administrator, such as the principal instead of the superintendent. If the superintendent makes the recommendation, he said, it may be beneficial to allow the principal to maintain a better working relationship with the student and parents moving forward.

Oller said topics for future presentations and in-depth discussions the board will likely have include bullying and harassment laws and the prevention steps MAU has in place, how prepared students entering the MAU district are, governance and new legislation from this year’s session.

At Monday’s meeting, the board approved transferring $127,000 over-budgeted in line items from this year’s budget to purchase new choral risers, lights at Spinelli Field, a new security camera system, to repair a section of roof and for the district’s contribution to secure two energy grants that will replace lighting at the high school.

The board denied the Southern Vermont Storm’s request to use the middle school football field for games this season, after the semi-pro football team made a request to use the field for three home games this upcoming season.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com