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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Schools Climate Still Needs Improvement

In February of 2003, the Davis Joint Unified School district heard from well over 100 students, parents and community members about problems of violence, discrimination and taunting at the schools.

The experience was an eye-opener for many on the school board and in the community who while they thought there was a problem, had no real idea of how bad it was--how deep and how widespread--at particularly the high school.

As a result of these meetings--several of them over the course of a few weeks--the school board created plans for a school climate committee and voted to hire a part-time School Climate Coordinator. Interestingly enough, they did this at a time of district-wide and state-wide budget problems.

In the wake of the recent events centering on the anti-gay harassment of a junior high school student, the district is now evaluating whether or not to expand the position.

During the meeting last week, the school board asked Mel Lewis, now the district's School Climate Coordinator, to draw up an action plan designed to reduce or eliminate harassment not just at Harper but at all Davis schools.

Lewis at the meeting pointed out he was doing a 1.5 time job on a half-time salary. The school board seemed to agree that the Mr. Lewis needs to be better sourced as did the father of the student, Guy Fischer. Fischer said "this is a full-time problem. There are a lot of things that could be done."

Lewis clearly has been given a strong mandate and he needs the resources to follow through on that mandate. We are supportive of the expansion of the climate position, at the same time some of Mr. Lewis' comments at the Human Relations Commission meeting on November 9, 2006 were of concern to us. Mr. Lewis at that time pointed out that the school district did a better job in this regards than adjacent school districts. That may or may not be true; however, this was not the time to make such an assertion.

However, it seems that the larger picture is pretty clear. The school district clearly needs to expand their programs because these types of problems do not appear to be going away.

Moreover, the community needs to be more aware of these types of ongoing problems. Most people at the school board meeting expressed a variety of mixed emotions of these events--one of the common ones was surprise and shock. Unfortunately, at this point, people in this community should be neither surprised nor shocked that these types of events still occur. They occur regularly albeit beneath the surface. We cannot deal with these types of problems if we are not aware of them. Therefore, one huge task of the school district if they are to be educators is to make the community well aware of these ongoing issues.

Finally, these issues do not exist in any sort of proverbial bubble. They extent beyond school district jurisdiction, they go into the community, and out beyond the community. As Mr. Fischer and his family's experience shows us full well, the harassment that his son suffered and continues to suffer went well beyond the boundaries of Harper Junior High School, affecting their home and home life.

This is a job for not only the school district, but rather a partnership between the schools, the city, the county and even the community. And yet, at the same time this issue has erupted, the Davis City Council is considering cutting back on the powers of the Human Relations Commission. Education is not the only role of such a body. They need to be able to actually investigate and make recommendations to the City Council for action, not just more talk.

We're pleased that this dialogue is occurring. Many in the community know that these problems have existed for quite some time but they usually bubble just beneath the surface of public consciousness. The suggestions for preventing future occurrences are good. Now the school district needs to take strong steps to make Mr. Fischer comfortable sending his son back to school.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting