Board of Education debuts new sexual harassment policy
WESTPORT — Months following student criticism of Westport Public Schools’ handling of sexual harrassment complaints, a new set of regulations was debuted Monday night.
The proposed regulations include a definition of sexual violence, in addition to harassment, and allow students to report incidents accompanied by a trusted adult, among other changes.
In the weeks before redrafting, board members, administrators and faculty hosted focus groups with parents and students, during which suggested amendments were noted.
“We did our best to respond to all the suggestions we had,” said Karen Kleine, head of the Board of Education’s Policy Committee, at the board’s Monday meeting.
The board’s former regulations were criticized as insufficient in January, when a group of female students stated during a public meeting that a group complaint they had jointly filed against a male classmate in the fall had not been adequately addressed by school administrators.
Later that month in response, Palmer promised a review of the district’s sexual harassment regulations, possibly within four to six weeks, and welcoming community input. It took longer than Palmer originally speculated, but the board made good on their promise to include concerned students and parents.
In a first reading of the new regulations on Monday, Kleine said coordinator of psychological services Valerie Babich and coordinator of school nursing Suzanne Levasseur, led an in-school focus group and recorded responses from students and parents to help draft the regulations.
The Policy Committee adopted several suggestions, and additional female Title IX coordinators were added in March. Language changes were adopted to make the process easier for students looking to file a complaint, but the committee couldn’t legally adopt others.
For example, students requested that a friend accompany them while making a complaint.
“We don’t agree with bringing a friend because the investigation has to be confidential according to law,” Klein said. “But a counselor or a teacher, and then even later we even add a parent, or someone from pupil services who is trained in talking to these students when they are going through something that was traumatic.”
Students also suggested the names of students be released who have been complained about multiple times or by multiple alleged victims. However, Kleine said Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act laws prohibit the identification of students about whom a complaint has been filed. Students in the focus groups additonally asked the use of the word “alleged” be limited.
“We just have to use the word alleged because we’re not deciding guilt or innocence,” Kleine said.
The board will vote on the regulations at its June 11 meeting, with time for public comment.
“Are we comfortable with the focus groups or is there something larger we need to do?” board member Vik Muktavaram asked.
“I’m comfortable that those people who wanted to be part of the process had a chance to do that,” Director of Pupil Services Mike Rizzo said. “It was a very open conversation; it was very honest.”
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