I am troubled by this newspaper's coverage of the Howard County School Board's recent resolution regarding the actions of board member Cynthia Vaillancourt that led to a finding of sexual harassment against her ("School board member backed," Oct. 12). I see no recognition that a child in our care was made extremely uncomfortable by a person in authority who to this day refuses to apologize. The board was forced to take action because she refused to accept responsibility for her lapse in judgment and the resulting adverse impact on this young man's emotional well-being.
Ms. Vaillancourt's statement was made in the school board's private conference room toward the end of the break between its afternoon and evening sessions. Two invited male high school students, Ms. Vaillancourt, three other female school board members and a female staff member were present finishing their meals. With no prior warning, Ms. Vaillancourt turned to one of the young men and asked, "Do you know that you have to be 18 to buy condoms at the Giant?" A palpable silence fell in the room and both of the students were visibly shaken.
The Howard County Public School System is a statewide leader in sex education offerings in which contraception and safe sex practices are explored. Students participate in those classes only after parental approval is obtained, and the classes implement with great sensitivity and vigilant oversight a curriculum that is approved by the Maryland State Department of Education. That is a far cry from the setting in which Ms. Vaillancourt's comment was made, a comment that had no basis in fact, as confirmed by Giant.
Of course, there is a time and a place to discuss the availability of condoms with minors. The fact that information addressing contraception is contained in an approved curriculum delivered by a trained educator does not make it a proper subject for an adult to raise unsolicited to a teenager of the opposite sex in a private setting. That is especially true when that adult occupies a position of power and authority, as does a school board member. One must ask whether this paper's coverage accepts the archaic notion that female-to-male sexual harassment should be gauged by a different standard than male-to-female sexual harassment. What parent would not be incensed if an adult male approached his or her teenage daughter to ask if she knew that "you have to be 18 to buy condoms at the Giant?"
The original complaint was initiated by the student and his parents, not by any member of HCPSS, and it was fully investigated and decided by the HCPSS Office of Equity Assurance in strict conformity with established HCPSS policies and procedures. The board's action was taken without a single dissenting vote. As stated by the student board member at the time of the vote, "What it comes down to is accountability."
The board takes the sacred trust and confidence reposed in us by the voters of Howard County for the safety and well-being of their children very seriously. I, for one, would not be able to live with myself if I were to allow Ms. Vaillancourt's actions to go ignored and unaddressed. It is time for Ms. Vaillancourt to be accountable, accept responsibility and take the school board up on its suggestion that she seek sensitivity training through the school system's Employee Assistance Program. The citizens of this county should expect nothing less.
Ellen Flynn Giles, Ellicott City
The writer is chairwoman of the Howard County Board of Education.
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