Wednesday, November 4, 2009

PA: Warwick School District reviews conduct policies

By BRIAN WALLACE, Staff Writer
November 3, 2009

Warwick School District's new superintendent says she's confident the district is well-equipped to respond to reports of inappropriate contact between students and staff members.

April Hershey, who began her tenure July 1, said a recent review of the district's policies and procedures indicates Warwick has effective safeguards in place to help prevent abuse and to investigate incidents when they occur.

The Oct. 22 review by the district's newly formed Professional Conduct Review Committee was conducted in response to recent incidents of inappropriate contact between students and district staff members.

In March, former Warwick High School music instructor and band director Todd Sheerer was sentenced to prison for having a two-year sexual relationship with one of his students.

In April, Michael David Gottier, a former part-time Warwick band instructor, was sentenced to probation for engaging in a physical relationship with a 16-year-old band member.

Also in April, former Warwick science teacher Donnie Thornton resigned amid allegations he was having a physical relationship with one of his students.

The review committee did not critique the district's handling of those incidents or any other specific allegations of misconduct, Hershey said.

That was never the intent of the committee, district spokeswoman Lori Zimmerman said.

Instead, the group looked at Warwick's policies relating to harassment and abuse of students, the code of conduct for teachers and coaches and procedures on reporting suspected abuse, among others.

The panel, which includes district administrators, board members, teachers and a guidance counselor, compared Warwick's policies and protocols with those at other school systems, as reported in a 2004 U.S. Department of Education study.

"We have excellent policies and procedures in place for dealing with these kinds of incidents," Hershey said.

"They're much more stringent than what we saw in the research."

According to district policy, students can report inappropriate behavior by other students or staff members to any school employee.

The employee then must turn that information over to the principal, who shares it with the superintendent.

The district is required to immediately notify law enforcement and child welfare officials if the allegations involve sexual abuse or child abuse.

The district then conducts an investigation in conjunction with outside agencies.

Warwick provides training for teachers, coaches and support staff members each year on the professional code of conduct for school personnel, Hershey said.

This year, all district professional and support staff members also attended a presentation by Carolyn Angelo, director of the state's Professional Standards and Practices Commission.

The agency investigates allegations of teacher misconduct and enforces Pennsylvania's Code of Professional Practice and Conduct for Educators.

Angelo discussed examples of misconduct between teachers and students, emphasizing the potential dangers of contacting students electronically via text messages and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, Hershey said.

Students do not receive group training on how to identify and report misconduct by staff members, but they're encouraged by their counselors to report any abuses, Hershey said.

"The counselors and staff have done a really nice job working with students to report bullying, student-on-student issues, student-on-staff incidents," she said. "That starts all the way back in elementary school."

Students' allegations are kept confidential, and they cannot be subject to reprisals or retaliation for filing complaints.

If they knowingly file a false accusation, however, they may be subject to disciplinary action.

The review committee recommended the district better publicize the reporting procedures to students on posters placed inside classrooms and school hallways.

Another recommendation was to let teachers and other staff members know that counseling is available when allegations of inappropriate behavior by their peers come to light.

Hershey said most of the policies and procedures the panel reviewed were in place prior to the recent misconduct involving staff members and students.

Why, then, did those incidents occur?

"I don't think Warwick is unique," she said. "All districts across the country have dealt with (misconduct) in one way or another."

The purpose of the review committee "was not to evaluate specific incidents," she said.

"The intention was to make sure that we have everything in place should something happen again.

"We're excited about moving forward knowing that we have a good system in place."

In addition to Hershey, the review committee includes high school principal Troy Price, school board members Timothy Quinn and Karen Malleus, assistant superintendent Matthew LaBuda, Lititz Borough Police Chief William Seace and Zimmerman.

Also on the panel are four Warwick teachers representing the elementary, middle and high schools and a high school guidance counselor.

Zimmerman said the review panel's work is done for now, but it may reconvene if the need arises.

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