You don't need to be a wonk

There has been a lot of talk about "policy" in the New London Public Schools as the antidote for some reported staff behavior that poses a threat to all students, directly or indirectly. You may well be thinking, "The heck with policy. Clean house. Focus on the kids. "

You'd be right not to want a policy-passing fest at a Board of Education meeting to take the focus off students, whose proper education is the sole purpose for which state law made school boards. House-cleaning is called for. But you'd be wrong to think policy won't help remedy what is hurting the city's schools. Policymaking is how a school board leads. It is not just for wonks.

Policy is the opposite of favoritism, of snap judgments, of conflicts of interest, of not knowing what to do in a given situation. A policy adopted by the board, with timelines for urgent matters and rules for carrying it out, is a fire drill. It is there when critical action is needed at once. It can sit unused for long periods, but in a crisis it tells what to do.

The beauty of policy is that it applies to everyone — unless someone who should be administering it fails to do so. That should be never, when it comes to children's safety.

Valid policies are written to comply with laws, although the law regarding child safety is very clear even without any local policy. Connecticut statutes have a felony charge entitled "risk of injury to a minor" that covers endangering life or limb or impairing the morals of a child under 16. It might apply, for instance, when a child is present where adults are using illegal drugs. It can also apply to illegal sexual acts involving a minor. Law mandates that teachers, administrators, nurses and coaches, among others, must report suspected cases of abuse or neglect to the Department of Children and Families.

Prosecutors have charged a former New London Public Schools employee, Corriche Gaskin, with risk of injury in connection with sexual acts at the middle school. One of his alleged partners was a minor, and the risks to her of having a sexual encounter with a 35-year-old, an authority figure in her school, are apt to be grave. A coach has been arrested for alleged second-degree sexual assault and a former teacher with failure to report.

CABE, the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, advises its member boards that they govern through policy; that the people — employees, students, parents — who will be affected by a policy need to hear about it before it is adopted; and that a policy is worthless unless it is disseminated. CABE urges boards to continually review policies to make sure they comply with law and court decisions. The New London board, which is not currently a CABE member, has said it is reviewing its policies now.

The New London Public Schools' website, www.newlondon.org, makes policies easy to find, and the language tends to be clear. One policy, 5140, says that "student welfare and safety shall receive the highest priority in all aspects of the school program."

Board President and former Superintendent Manuel Rivera is correct that it's the job of the school board to clean up its own house and review its own policies. But in the current situation "highest priority" will be best executed by opening the process to the advice of additional experts on student welfare and safety — parents, health professionals, and the Office of the Child Advocate. Keep the policymaking where state law has ordained, but seek out the best advice and then act fearlessly. That's the highest priority.

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board. 

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