Conduct guidelines for Peters schools staff, students, board addressed

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As teachers in the Peters Township School District returned to work Monday -- a week before students return to classes -- they were given recommended guidelines governing relationships with students online and off-campus, while board members Monday evening began a process to update the district's anti-bullying and anti-cyberbullying policy.

District solicitor Jack Cambest also addressed the board regarding communications with taxpayers outside of public board meetings -- including those online -- and warned members that they should bring taxpayer and parent concerns to the appropriate staff members rather than trying to handle complaints themselves.

"We have to be very careful," Mr. Cambest told the board. "We're here as a body, we're not here as individuals."

Mr. Cambest cautioned the board nearly two months after board member Lynn Erenberg was sued for defamation by local physical therapist Mark Mortland, who accused her of using an anonymous identity on a blog to making false statements about his personal and business life.

Mr. Cambest said "qualified immunity" for board members regarding their interactions with the public are legally valid only in a board setting. Board members can expose the district and themselves to legal liability by taking individual action.

Mr. Cambest said he did not recommend the board establish a policy regarding teacher/student communication on social media websites due to concerns about freedom of speech.

Rather, he said teachers and staff were given suggestions by superintendent Nina Zetty that are in line with those established by the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the union representing public schoolteachers in the state.

The PSEA has a "safe social media" guide on its website for members that suggests, among other things, to "avoid posting anything on your profile page about your colleagues, administrators or students, as well as using inappropriate or profane messages or graphics, or anything that would reflect negatively on your workplace."

The issue came to the forefront earlier this year, after a parent expressed concerns about a Peters High School teacher interacting with students online and making what the parent said were "inappropriate, derogatory, racist and sexually suggestive" comments.

Parent Laura Norton told members of the district's policy committee that she also was concerned about photos of students being posted online by the teacher and said she had complained to district administrators previously. "Our children must be protected from inappropriate adults," Ms. Norton told members in May. "Please don't sweep this under the rug."

No charges were filed in the alleged incident, and the teacher remains in the classroom.

Board members on Monday also heard the first reading of a policy change that would expand the district's authority regarding off-campus bullying -- including online bullying -- requiring administrators to take action if the bullying "affects the good order, efficient management and welfare of the school district."

Mr. Cambest said that while "good order" is a subjective, nonlegal term, in this context it means any action that started elsewhere but has spilled into a school setting and disrupted the learning process.

The board is expected to vote on the policy change Sept. 17.

• The board heard from district athletic director Brian Geyer, who said student athletes this year were asked to sign a sportsmanship pledge, including nearly 400 student athletes from the high school and 250 from the middle school.

"We want to be sure that our kids, wherever they go, act appropriately," he said.

The pledge was developed six months after a fracas between the Peters and Woodland Hills boys basketball teams, in which Woodland Hills player Shakim Alonzo was charged with assault for punching a Peters player during a playoff game.

Shakim, who is African-American, said players from the Peters Township team used a racial slur toward him, and parents in the Woodland Hills district who attended the game at California University of Pennsylvania said they overheard multiple racial slurs directed at the Woodland Hills basketball players and cheerleaders by Peters fans and players.

A joint investigation later conducted by both districts turned up no evidence of racial slurs during the game, but a California University security worker reported he heard Peters Township players using racial slurs about Woodland Hills in the locker room after the game.

education - neigh_south - neigh_washington

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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