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School Board Debates Tough New Policy on Harassment : Behavior: New standards and potential penalties would apply from fourth grade up. Students would be able to relate incidents to any adult, who would be required to report or resolve the problem.

February 11, 1993|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — A proposed sexual harassment policy would set tough new behavior standards in Long Beach schools, establishing potential penalties for everyone from former lovers to students as young as 9.

The proposed guidelines, tentatively approved this week, are an attempt to protect employees and students in the Long Beach Unified School District from sexual harassment and to save the school system from costly litigation.

"I think it's something whose time had come," said school board President Mary Stanton of the proposed harassment policy. "In a way we're reacting to the Anita Hill case and the subsequent discussion of what is sexual harassment. We're just being cautious and preparing in case something like this happens. Hopefully, having a policy such as this will deter sexual harassment."

The school board approved the new policy 4 to 0 on its first reading. Board member Jenny Oropeza was absent. The policy will go into effect immediately if it passes a second reading, scheduled for the Feb. 22 board meeting.

The new policy would replace previous sexual harassment rules adopted in 1988, officials said.

Under the new guidelines, students could relate incidents of harassment to any adult. And that adult would be required to resolve the problem or report it to the proper authority. Adults who failed to take action would be subject to discipline, including possible dismissal.

The proposed policy "doesn't require the child going to the office and filling out a form," said Theodore Buckley, the district's legal adviser. "Normally, students would go to the school administrator with a problem, because the administrator is responsible for disciplinary matters. But if the youngster is not comfortable with that, then the youngster can go to any trusted adult."

Employees guilty of harassment could lose their jobs. Students who harass other students would face suspension or expulsion--starting as early as the fourth grade.

Establishing sexual harassment as an issue in the fourth grade could create problems, said Marjorie Kinney, president of the Long Beach PTA.

"To me, this is an adult concept that we're trying to throw upon our kids," Kinney said. "Kids are always teasing one another, and it really depends on the persons to whom it's directed, whether it's taken as a joke or their feelings are hurt. It could be perceived as sexual harassment when it isn't meant that way."

At the same time, she said she recognized that the proposed policy could help students, parents and teachers deal with harassment.

In most cases, teachers and principals can resolve problems between students and their peers without a formal policy, said Jim Deaton, president of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach. He said the guidelines should encourage adults to try first to settle harassment issues before calling in higher authorities.

"I should be able to say to the person: 'This is unacceptable behavior. Don't do this,' rather than go immediately to the investigation," Deaton said. "Sometimes we get so involved with legal technicalities that the process becomes cumbersome. We lose the point of what we're trying to do."

The district's attempt to define sexual harassment more broadly could create some confusion, the district's Buckley conceded. Is it harassment for a group of boys to tease a girl about her looks as she passes them in the hall? Is it harassment for a boy to keep asking a girl for a date? Or vice versa?

Until the policy is tested, Buckley said he prefers to avoid defining when a student has crossed the line.

The proposed guidelines instruct school administrators to resolve, when possible, cases of children harassing other children. However, cases of adults harassing children or other adults would be referred to the district for further investigation.

The proposed policy says that former lovers, boyfriends or girlfriends could also be guilty of harassment--once they are put on notice that their attentions are unwanted.

"We do expect people to clarify their own relationship first," Buckley said.

The proposed policy also states that alleged harassers would have to pay their own legal fees and court judgments. Buckley said Long Beach Unified is one of many school districts adopting this position.

Legislation that took effect Jan. 1 requires all school districts to adopt sexual harassment policies and disseminate them to employees and students.

Recent legislation also added sexual harassment to the list of offenses for which schools may suspend or expel students. Under the law, a school may discipline a student for sexual harassment as early as the fourth grade.

Long Beach Unified has had a sexual harassment policy since 1988, but it was outdated, Buckley said. "The original policy primarily dealt with a supervisor giving a subordinate a bad time. It was to remind supervisors to stay in line."

Times community correspondent John Pope contributed to this article.

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