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DEDHAM

Parents upset at schools’ new rules

Year-round, all-day policy is put on hold

By Michele Morgan Bolton
Globe Correspondent / April 22, 2012
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A new school policy that would hold students accountable for their actions year-round has generated a storm of opposition, according to Dedham officials, and has been put on ice until it can be reviewed and possibly rewritten by a newly established subcommittee.

The policy, which was approved in late March by a majority of Dedham School Committee members, spells out school penalties for violence and drug or alcohol use, even if the actions occur off school property when school is not in session.

It also calls for punishing youths who are at the scene of, but not participating in, such activities. Selectman Paul Reynolds said his board was in the dark about that aspect of the new policy until selectmen were overwhelmed by “a tsunami’’ of outrage.

“I sympathize with these parents,’’ said Reynolds, who will sit on the subcommittee that examines the document with Selectman Carmen Dello Iaccono, Police Chief Michael d’Entremont, and several School Committee members.

“Holding a club over kids’ heads 52 weeks a year with increasingly punitive sanctions sends the message that we suspect the worst of them, instead of expecting the very best from them,’’ said Reynolds.

At their meeting April 12, Dedham selectmen delayed a vote on the new policy and instead formed a subcommittee to look at it.

The latest development sits well with civil libertarians who had said that the proposed policy, known as a memorandum of understanding, is overreaching, excessively punitive, and supplants the role of families, besides possibly violating state and federal law.

“I give parents credit for speaking out and also the selectmen for saying this has to be rethought,’’ said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

The police chief said he looks forward to discussing the issues surrounding the policy with the subcommittee.

“The objective of this document is to keep the youth in the community safe,’’ d’Entremont said.

Superintendent June Doe, who signed the document with the chief, could not be reached for comment.

A small group of School Committee members has been working on the memorandum of understanding for about a year, member Dave Roberts said recently, but some kind of policy has been in place for two decades.

Roberts said that the document has to be periodically adjusted to keep pace with the times and that students sometimes get involved in things they should not. But until now, the schools did not give themselves authority to discipline students outside school, opponents said.

The proposed policy established a chain of communication between police and school principals, as well as punishments for infractions, depending on whether an incident occurred on school grounds or off.

School Committee chairman Kevin Coughlin, Roberts, Joe Heisler, and Mayanne Briggs voted for it, while Tom Ryan, Susan Butler-Walko, and Dimitria Sullivan voted against it.

In a letter to selectmen, resident Ann Mercer pointed out a similar review of a memorandum of understanding in 2004. While she said she did not care for the changes made at that time, Mercer said that school officials’ efforts to involve the community in the decision was beyond reproach.

Not so this time, said Mercer, who said a majority of members voted to approve the policy despite a complete lack of procedure, poor notification, and a lack of input and public discussion.

“An issue of this importance deserves thorough consideration and the opportunity for input from all involved parties,’’ she said. “That did not happen.’’

Reynolds lauded Mercer for being a driving force in getting parents involved in the subcommittee discussions. “I fully support parent involvement as we find a solution to the issue,’’ he said.

Cheryl Fish also provided her concerns to selectmen in writing and said in an interview that she is very concerned about the possible long-term ramifications if the proposed regulation by the School Committee is approved.

“Raising my children is my job and not the job of the School Department or the government,’’ Fish said.

Reynolds said he hopes that in addition to rethinking the document the town might take steps to empower youth, rather than tear them down.

“I’d love to see an independent, grass-roots youth advocacy group emerge out of all this activity that lives beyond the Board of Selectmen’s subcommittee work, supports the Youth Commission, and keeps a spotlight on the School Committee,’’ he said.

“People have to remember that punitive actions can permanently derail a student’s academic future with a permanent stain on their record, putting them at risk of dropping out, and spiral down further,’’ he said. “These policies, whether they are shaped by police or by school officials, should be subject to far more transparency and careful review than is currently the case.’’

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@live.com.

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