ELPS Considers New Policy Handbook with $7,000 Price Tag, Talks Recess and Pregnant Students

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An all-gender bathroom at East Lansing High School and the new Donley playground.

The Policy Committee of the East Lansing Public Schools Board of Education met on Friday to consider changes to two policies – one about withholding recess as a form of punishment, the other about pregnant students – and to discuss whether to purchase a policy handbook from the district’s law firm.

The group came to no decision on whether to recommend the new policy handbook, which comes with a $7,000 price tag. But they did affirm a “right” to play outside, and effectively affirmed that pregnant students are students.

Thrun’s Policy Handbook

Fredric Heidemann, an attorney with Thrun Law Firm, P.C., met with the Policy Committee to promote a policy handbook that the law firm has produced for Michigan schools, one Heidemann said is fully compliant with existing Michigan law. Thrun advises clients in the public sector and specializes in education. ELPS is currently a retainer client of Thrun.

Many existing district handbooks, Heidemann said, are either too long or too short, contain conflicting policies, or are not compliant with current Michigan law. Thrun has developed a generic school policy handbook that can be formatted to meet the needs of individual school districts.

School Board Vice President Terah Chambers explained that the Policy Committee had long been interested in revising the districts’ policies to ensure they meet the core values of ELPS. Chambers chairs the Policy Committee, which also includes School Board Treasurer Kath Edsall and Trustee Chris Martin.

At Friday’s meeting, the three committee members and Superintendent Dori Leyko engaged in a robust discussion, weighing the pros and cons of adopting Thrun’s handbook.

Price was a concern. Following an initial purchase price of $7,000, annual updates that address changes to law would cost $2,500 each year. Heidemann stated that the annual cost could be lower if changes were minimal.

But ELPS School Board’s desire to customize its handbook could drive the price even higher.

The handbook, according to Heidemann, provides built-in options for schools to meet local standards while remaining compliant with law. However, Thrun recommended that any additional changes be run by Thrun to check for compliance or possible conflict with other policies. This would cost extra.

Martin suggested the district examine past inventories to see how much ELPS had spent on consulting Thrun regarding policy in past years to get a sense of what all this might cost.

Heidemann assured the group that some questions could be answered without additional charges via online workshops offered to clients who purchase the manual. He also intimated that ELPS could negotiate a price for annual subscriptions or customization, since the district is a retainer client that regularly used Thrun’s services.

If Thrun’s handbook were adopted in whole before making changes, it would override existing ELPS policies. But consideration of significant changes could be time-consuming and delay adoption of a new set of policies.

Edsall raised practical concerns about how Thrun’s handbook would be implemented, using an example: ELPS currently has policies to protect gender identity and expression. What would happen to students if ELPS adopted Thrun’s handbook and overrode existing policies in that case?

An all-gender restroom at East Lansing’s High School (photo from 2016).

Heidemann said protection of gender identity and expression was an option in the handbook but acknowledged that in cases like this one, Thrun’s handbook allows for choices among drafted policies, not complete customization without extra charge.

The Policy Committee did not reach a consensus on whether it would recommend the School Board purchase the handbook. It plans to revisit the topic at a future date.

Meanwhile, Thrun has provided its subscribers with a generic draft resolution to address existing school policies that contradict the governor’s executive orders related to the pandemic. The resolution, if passed by the school board, would temporarily suspend any policies that contradict executive orders.

Affirming the right to play outside

At Friday’s meeting, the policy committee also addressed ELPS policy 8300, which addresses consequences for students’ misbehavior.

The current policy allows teachers and administrators to “deny participation in special school activities; [require] before or after school detention; [implement] disciplinary contractual arrangements; [administer] out-of-school suspension [or] in-school suspension; [undertake] expulsion; and/or [use] disciplinary probation.” The policy also encourages positive behavioral support.

The new Donley school playground (photo by Raymond Holt)

The Committee addressed whether teachers should be allowed to deny recess to misbehaving students, after a community member raised questions about this.

Chambers encouraged the Committee to consider how recess is important to mental health and wellbeing, suggesting that restricting outside play is in conflict with ELPS core values.

Edsall stated that she did not think that many teachers denied recess, but in the cases where recess was denied, it could have a detrimental effect. Recess may be denied to students who struggle to pay attention or remain still, and that form of punishment could exacerbate attention problems.

The committee agreed with Chambers’ suggestion to word the policy in the affirmative, stating that ELPS believes all children have a right to play outside. The exact wording will be discussed in the upcoming weeks.

Managing pregnant students’ status

The committee also developed an amendment to policy 8890, which addresses pregnant students, for the full Board to consider.

The existing policy states, “The rights of a pregnant student do not eliminate her responsibility for meeting the rules and standards of behavior established by the Board and do not exempt her from disciplinary measures imposed for breaking such rules.”

The committee concluded that the sentence is unnecessary since all students must follow the existing rules and standards. The committee is recommending the Board vote to eliminate the sentence – effectively affirming that pregnant students are students.

The older policy also stated that, if a pregnant student withdraws from school, “the District alone or in conjunction with other community institutions will furnish her with such assistance as is possible to enable her to return to school on a full-time basis.”

The committee wanted new wording to allow pregnant students to take advantage of remote learning if they so desire, so they are recommending the wording be changed to call for the district to furnish assistance to “continue education in platforms approved by Board of Education.” This allows for remote as well as in-person learning, something that may be especially helpful to pregnant students looking to complete their high school educations.

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