Students who voice slurs or express their prejudices with their fists would face a combination of education and discipline under a proposed policy to protect students' rights.
The policy establishes students' rights to a school environment free of threats, harassment or violence based on race, color, creed, religion, physical or mental disability, gender or sexual orientation. It is scheduled to be introduced during the evening session of Thursday's school board meeting, which begins at 7:30 p.m. It will be the subject of a public hearing June 11.
Racial incidents this school year, including one in which a disinfectant was sprayed on a black middle school student and another where a racial epithet was used against an elementary school student, prompted county school officials to establish a policy governing students' rights.
The policy attempts to straddle the line between free speech and language that is not protected under the Constitution, said James R. McGowan, associate superintendent for instruction and administration. Principals will have to evaluate individual incidents, he said.
"It can't be cut and dried, clear as crystal and especially not in this situation," McGowan said.
The principals must notify the Office of Human Relations and McGowan of any violations, according to the proposal.
If a student says, for example, "I hate dykes," that could be a violation of the policy, depending on whether the speaker knew that a lesbian student was present and intended the remark against that student, McGowan said. "When it becomes harmful toward someone, when it's directed at someone, it's a violation," he said.
The hypothetical example becomes clearly a violation if a student directly addresses a lesbian student with the pejorative term, the associate superintendent explained.
However, if someone said, for example, "The real problem is that there are too many homosexuals," that statement would be offensive to many listeners but would probably be protected under Constitutional guarantees of free speech, McGowan said.
The policy states that "mere expression of views, no matter how offensive or unpopular," is not a violation unless intended to ridicule, demean, intimidate or threaten an individual or identifiable individuals. It bars bias-related profanity or acts of violence.
Students who use words to harass, intimidate or hurt others will receive counseling and must participate in educational activities designed to increase understanding of the consequences of their actions, for the first offense. A second offense will mean repeating the consequences for the first offense, plus suspension from school.
Bias-related physical intimidation, threats of physical harm or physical assault will mean suspension, counseling and educational activities for the first offense. Principals can recommend that the student be expelled from school for serious first offenses. Second offenses mean an automatic recommendation for expulsion.
McGowan said the physical section of the policy is aimed at assaults rather than fights in which groups of students meet after school to settle differences with their fists. The policy covers situations, for example, in which a student might direct a racial epithet at another student and follow it up with a punch.
The counseling and educational activities are designed to "set the tone, the direction, work with the student to work through and understand the impact of their actions," McGowan said.