Frustration and confusion sometimes follow incidents of harassment at schools because federal laws limit the information available to parents.
“It is important for our parents to understand that we have very strict federal laws under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which restricts us on what we can share,” Fulton County Schools Assistant Superintendent Christopher Matthews said. “Our school system is one of acceptance, and we want our schools to be tolerant of people with different backgrounds. We do apply the code of conduct but can’t always share how and who it’s been applied to.”
Although Fulton County public schools are not the only public and non-Jewish private schools in the Atlanta area to experience incidents involving allegations of anti-Semitism the past couple of years, the on-the-record examples used in a recent AJT report on rising anti-Semitism came from the Fulton system. The AJT therefore gave Fulton educators a chance to speak about the issues involved and the possibility of revisions to the Student Code of Conduct in response.
To address incidents of harassment and bullying, North Springs Charter High School often refers to the guidelines in that Code of Conduct, said the school’s second-year principal, Michael Scott Hanson.
“Once we receive an allegation, we start investigating the situation and speak with individuals who may have further information about what transpired before applying the policy,” Hanson said. “In instances where parents are not satisfied with how a situation is handled, however, Fulton County officials will then contact the school and work with them to determine if the Student Code of Conduct has been applied.”
North Springs also works with outside organizations to help kids understand the impact of bullying, Hanson said.
Five students accompanied him to the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate summit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. The students later formed an advisory committee with other students to address issues of culture and acceptance.
“North Springs is one of our more diverse high schools,” with large black, Latino and Asian populations, said Susan Hale, a Fulton County Schools spokeswoman. Located in Sandy Springs, North Springs also has a significant Jewish population.
Hale said the student advisory board at North Springs sought to bring Step Up Assemblies to North Springs in partnership with the ADL. Those efforts began before a Valentine’s Day incident in which a Snapchat post indicating that “My love for your burns like six-million Jews” circulated at the high school.
Speakers from the ADL were invited to conduct eight small assemblies over two days to promote inclusivity and to train teachers in response to future incidents, Hale said.
“We rely on our teachers for a lot of information regarding how our students are coping with things and how we can help address it,” Hanson said.
He said North Springs has always been inclusive and regularly hosts multicultural activities, including an event in February promoting half the student body’s cultures through food.
A parent of a child who has reported harassment at a Fulton County school said the Student Code of Conduct is being changed to provide further protection for students with special needs, increased training for the teachers who work with them, and more consideration of the seriousness of offences when taking disciplinary action.
Matthews said he is not aware of any specific policy changes, but he said language regarding special education students has been added to the Student Code of Conduct.
The language is broad enough to apply to a wide range of hate-driven incidents, Matthews said. “If it can be shown that there is a specific code that has been violated, then we are prompted to provide consequences. We don’t label each incident, but attempt to gather evidence and are then obligated to apply the consequences.”
Matthews mentioned that Fulton County Schools recently hosted a summit that brought faith leaders and educators together to discuss partnerships they could implement in schools.
“It is important that we have the ability to connect with the community and faith leaders, which is just one way we can open doors and ensure that we are providing an inclusive community,” he said.
Moving forward, the county hopes to implement social emotional learning programs, which teach responsibility, acceptance and diversity, as well as a new five-year strategic plan about which the county administrator did not elaborate.
Matthews said grassroots initiatives include governance councils composed of parents at each school.