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School Committee Discusses Bullying Policy

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Two new School Committee members took their seats on Monday and they immediately faced a decision regarding one issue that is paramount to many parents.

The topic of bullying and overall conduct dominated the meeting, particularly a discussion over updating the School Department’s policy

DSC_0032In the proposed update, the most significant change involved the legal definition of what bullying is, with the update closely following guidelines provided by state law.

Westford Academy staff member Sean O’Leary informed the board that the number of bullying incidents throughout Westford’s public schools were almost non-existent due to the criteria posed by the state’s legal definition of bullying, although he stressed that some students still face social challenges with other students that must be addressed.

“The numbers are small, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a huge problem to the kid that’s living it,” said O’Leary. “We’ve seen examples of where it can be catastrophic.”

Following up on a presentation at the previous meeting looking at risk behaviors in Westford students, O’Leary provided information on the schools’ anti-bullying strategies, with additional information provided by Westford Academy Principal James Antonelli and Stony Brook School Principal Dr. Christopher Chew.

Despite the seemingly positive statistics, O’Leary indicated that additional data is needed to track progress.

School Committee Member Erika Kohl voiced concerns over the language of the policy change being taken out of the hands of the School Committee, which she feared was little more than a template document meeting state minimum guidelines.

Superintendent Bill Olsen strongly advised against any significant changes to the policy however, stating that the changes were crafted by legal counsel and deviation could leave the department exposed to future litigation situations.

A motion to adopt the policy, adding only contact information, failed in a 3-3-0 vote, with Tom Clay, David Keele and Terence Ryan voting in favor. Kohl was joined in opposition to the motion by the School Committee’s new members, Christopher Sanders and Avery Adam.

Sanders also voiced concerns over proposed changes to the Westford Academy Student Handbook, most notably potential searches of student cell phones during safety crisis situations.

Antonelli told the board that any searches occurring would be done by Westford Police officials, most likely the School Resource Officer, Det. Geoffrey Pavao.

He also noted that only information relating to the potential threat would be sought inside the phones, although it was stated that it would be “relatively new territory.”

Sanders commented that he was uncomfortable with the impacts this could have on the culture of the school and asked if there were other methods outside of searching phones, with Antonelli responding that the school has worked closely with Westford Police in other safety issues and there has always been an emphasis on not only speed, but discretion.

“This is their lives, they live and breathe on these things,” said Antonelli regarding students’ phones. “So there will have to be some reasonable controls any search.”

The motion, which was amended to be subject to approval of Westford Police Department Chief Thomas McEnaney, passed 5-1-0. Sanders was in the minority.

In other news from the meeting, handbook changes for other parts of the School Department were approved and the number of School Choice students for the next school year was set at a cap of 75.

There are now two School Committee meetings left until Summer recess, not including a special meeting for Olsen’s annual assessment.