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Published December 02 2013

Forum editorial: Assault policy flawed

The Moorhead Public School District needs to revise its policy involving incidents between students in light of the recent assault of a female high school student. The standard practice has been to bring together the two students involved in an altercation for a meeting with a school administrator. The intent of the policy presumably is to patch things up between the two students, with apologies for transgressions and an agreement to put differences aside and get along.

In many instances, that’s a reasonable approach. But when a student has been traumatized by violence, a forced meeting with the aggressor could subject the

victim to re-victimization. That’s what happened after a Nov. 12 incident in which a male student placed a female student in a headlock and shoved her to the floor. Other students had to restrain the male student after the female student freed herself and ran away.

School administrators’ handling of the incident, which recently came before the Moorhead School Board, exposes several problems in policies and practices that require revision. First, the school failed to notify the female student’s parents, as policy required. Distressingly, when the issue was raised at a school board meeting two weeks later, it wasn’t clear whether the male student was disciplined. The mother of the female student said the male student had not been suspended, as required by school policy.

“It’s clear that the procedures were not followed,” the girl’s mother told board members, “but what’s more clear is that the procedures are inadequate.” In response, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said, on the one hand, that the incident “is still being examined.” On the other hand, she said she believed the male student had been disciplined. Principal Dave Lawrence was silent during the discussion.

At minimum, it appears school administrators failed to follow established procedures by neglecting to notify the female student’s parents and possibly failing to suspend the male student promptly. But by forcing the female student, who clearly was distressed, to meet with her attacker served no constructive end and inflicted further harm on the victim. For Moorhead public schools, the mishandling of this unfortunate incident presents what educators like to call a teachable moment. It also highlights a misguided policy of requiring students to meet an attacker, and it exposes an apparent breakdown in procedures involving notification and discipline.

Natalie Smith Carlson, the mother of the female student, presented school board members with sensible suggestions for improving their policies for handling assaults. They include sending the victim to a school nurse and contacting a victim’s advocate to speak with the student who was attacked. Administrators must ensure that parents are notified. Administrators, painfully slow to act in this case, should quickly take remedial action. The time for assessment is over. Now it’s time for action.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.