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Staff Photo by Angela Lewis Foster Nick Wilkins, left, talks at UnifiED, about the need for stricter anti-bullying policies in the Hamilton County School system as Elizabeth Crews looks on.
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New bullying and harassment policy

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Students say it's time for the Hamilton County Board of Education to tighten its policy on bullying and harassment.

A group of about 20 students working with UnifiEd's Student Voice Team that examined the policy in December found it does not comply with state law and isn't on a par with policies in other large school districts across the state.

Students for months have been pressing for the policy to be updated, and the school board began to take action after the December rape of an Ooltewah High School freshman, allegedly by three of his basketball teammates.

The school board is expected to vote tonight to adopt a new policy.

Nick Wilkins, a senior at Ooltewah High School and member of the Student Voice Team, said it's a much-needed step in the right direction.

"I'm excited because most of the changes we supported and suggested are in this policy," Wilkins said. "It feels like a win for Student Voice."

Wilkins and fellow team members wrote to and met with some school board members to ask that the policy:

- Be more specific about the consequences of bullying, intimidation, hazing and harassment.

- Include a procedure for handling reports of bullying and harassment and make schools more accountable for handling them properly.

- Clarify how the statement will be publicized. The students recommended that it be distributed to students each year.

- Create an anonymous reporting mechanism at each school.

The proposed policy contains all of those things, and is about twice the length of the existing page-and-a-half policy.

School board member Greg Martin, chairman of the policy committee, said the new policy was drafted using a collaborative effort and is not just a result of UnifiEd's student team.

Martin asked a group of community members to review several policies, and said he included the local Parent Teacher Association and some students in the Superintendent's Advisory Council for suggestions as well.

"We've had a lot of people looking at this to make sure it's just not minimal compliance," Martin said. "We are not just trying to meet the law, but want to make sure we meet the need for our employees and students."

Martin said the new policy eliminates a lot of ambiguity. However, since state law changes often, it is important the policy committee frequently review all of the board's policies and seek improvements when needed.

The proposed policy includes two significant changes: implementing the anonymous reporting system and guidelines for reporting, and requiring school administrators to tell the superintendent every nine weeks about all incidents or complaints of bullying/harassment and how each report was handled. The present policy requires only annual reports.

Wilkins said there's still room for improvement and he hopes the board will consider additional changes in the future. He thinks the policy should list suggested consequences for offenses to provide guidance to principals and school administrators.

The STEM School in Hamilton has such a list, which Wilkins said gives victims and perpetrators a clear understanding of expected punishment and justice, while still giving school leaders situational discretion.

Wilkins would also like the policy to say students may not be mistreated because of sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.

Elizabeth Crews is executive director of UnifiEd, a nonprofit dedicated to involving the community in public education. She said she is proud of the students' advocacy and the concrete solutions they provided school board members.

"I applaud the school board for taking community voices and making changes," Crews said. "Many members seemed very open to hearing what students have to say."

Also today, the school board plans to interview three candidates for the position of interim superintendent.

Current acting co-superintendent Kirk Kelly, Normal Park Museum Magnet Principal Jill Levine and retired Marine commanding officer Shaun Sadler are expected to be interviewed starting at 3 p.m.

The interviews are public, and the board is expected to vote afterward.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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