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April 23, 2014

Wilmington board debates ‘free expression’

NEW CASTLE — Wilmington Area school directors weighed student safety concerns against free speech rights Monday.

A proposed policy on student free expression and posting of materials drew concern from one board member. The policy allows the school to take action in some cases of “unprotected expression” which takes place off-campus and after hours.

 The policy defines “unprotected expression” as student expression that violates the rights of others. Some examples are libel, advocating use of dangerous substances, obscene or vulgar expression, incitement to violence and lawbreaking.

In addition to being unprotected, the expression must be “likely to materially or substantially interfere with the educational process,” threaten serious harm to the school or community, encourage unlawful activity or interfere with another’s rights.

Board member Autumn Miller said she was concerned that the policy “is overreaching,” because it addresses expression off school property and after school hours. She proposed that the policy be revised.

However Board Solicitor John Salopek said the phrasing of the new policy is taken directly from recent Supreme Court rulings.

 “It gives the district the broadest opportunity to take action that may be necessary,” he said.

Superintendent Dr. Michelle Miller agreed, stating the well being and safety of students and staff is the crux of the policy.

 She explained that school personnel sometimes become aware of threats or bullying, weapons, or other illegal action through social media. Although these occur out of school, she said they could affect students and others within the schools.

She added that while the policy provides for disciplinary action, all such situations would not involve discipline. Sometimes the policy would just allow school officials to speak to the student or notify parents.

Dr. Bo DiMuccio, board president, said the safeguards against the policy being misapplied by the school are “the board and the legal system.”

DiMuccio informally polled other board members, all of whom all agreed to keep the policy as it is. Mrs. Miller said she is not sure if she will vote for adoption of the policy next month.

The policy will come up for a third and final reading at the May meeting.

The board also is updating several other existing board policies.

Also Monday, the board:

•Agreed to seek bids for resurfacing the athletic field and track.

•Agreed advertise for bids for either painting the lockers or purchasing new ones for the middle and high school.

•Unanimously voted to oppose Senate Bill 1085 which extends the authorization period for the state’s charter schools from five to 10 years. The board resolution asks for more effective charter school reform legislation than the proposed bill contains.

•Hired Eleanor Winters as a substitute custodian at $7.25 per hour.

(Email: grzebieniak@ncnewsonline.com)

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