The last few years have seen the Hernando County School Board face enormous policy challenges, especially regarding student instructional and safety issues. The school district’s contractor, NEOLA, is charged with keeping policies current and in compliance with state law. NEOLA has released a new set of policy recommendations to revise the district’s 247-page policy manual. The changes will bring updates to a host of high-profile issues, as well as dozens of less prolific policy wording changes. The school board met in a workshop session on Oct. 24 to consider the proposals. The board plans to wrap up its review during the next workshop and place the changes on an upcoming meeting agenda for an approval vote.
Here are some highlights of the recommended changes:
Term of School Board Members
The policy changes the number of consecutive years a school board member may serve from twelve to eight. Any service before November 8th, 2022, would not be counted toward this limitation. This was a result of a change in state law.
Public Participation at Board Meetings
The policy change adds a clause to better define how members of the public must conduct themselves at school board meetings. The change states, “The Board has adopted a Code of Civility which requires all participants to engage in meaningful but civil communication. Speakers addressing the Board during the Public Comment Period shall refrain from making disparaging remarks about any individuals and shall abide by the Code of Civility. Speakers shall, therefore, be prohibited from using loud or offensive language, heckling, disruptive behavior, verbal outbursts, inappropriate gestures, profanity, or any other language or statement that, in the discretion of the Board Chair or designee, is intended to bully, belittle, tease, or demean another individual or that is otherwise abusive or obscene. No personal accusatory, slanderous, or derogatory comments which identifies an individual by position or proper name shall be permitted.”
Employment of Administrators
Proposed changes in this section outline certain administrative duties as well as disqualifiers for educator certification based on recent legal changes. Language added includes “Beginning January 1, 2025, or a later date as determined by the Agency for Health Care Administration, the Agency for Health Care Administration shall determine the eligibility of employees in any position that requires direct contact with students in a District school.”
The changes also include additional language to define previous criminal acts, which would make a person ineligible for employment in any position requiring student contact. Those changes state
……they are ineligible based on a security background investigation under F.S.435.04; …..they have been convicted or found guilty of, have had adjudication withheld for, or have pled guilty or nolo contendere to any of the felony offenses listed in F.S. 1012.315 and.(1) any criminal act in another state or under federal law which, if committed in Florida, constitutes a disqualifying offense under F.S. 435.04(2) or (2) any delinquent act committed in Florida or any delinquent or criminal act committed in another state or under Federal law which, if committed in Florida, qualifies an individual for inclusion on the Registered Juvenile Sex Offender List under F.S. 943.0435.”
Development of Program of Instruction – Instruction in Sexual Orientation/Gender Identity
This policy deals with grade levels in which students may not receive instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity. Instruction in these areas was previously prohibited in kindergarten through third grade but is now banned in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.
Required Instruction now includes “The history of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, including the history of Japanese internment camps and the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II; the immigration, citizenship, civil rights, identity, and culture of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to American society. Instructional materials shall include the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to American society.”
Comprehensive Health Education
An addition to this section requires that the School Board shall provide evidence-based, medically-accurate comprehensive instruction …. for students in grades 6 through 12 (on) the social, emotional, and physical effects of social media. This component must include but need not be limited to, the negative effects of social media on mental health, including addiction; the distribution of misinformation on social media; how social media manipulates behavior; the permanency of sharing materials online; how to maintain personal security and identify cyberbullying, predatory behavior, and human trafficking on the Internet; and how to report suspicious behavior encountered on the Internet.
Instruction in Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, or Health Education
Added “classify males and females as provided in F.S. 1000.21 and teach that biological males impregnate biological females by fertilizing the female egg with male sperm; that the female then gestates the offspring, and that these reproductive roles are binary, stable, and unchangeable.
Selection And Adoption Of Instructional Materials
Added “Each principal shall provide that instructional materials are used to provide instruction to students enrolled at the grade level or levels for which the materials are designed pursuant to adopted Board policies. Each principal shall communicate to parents the manner in which instructional materials are used to implement the curricular objectives of the school and the procedures for contesting the adoption and use of instructional materials. Principals are also responsible for overseeing compliance with District procedures for selecting school library media center materials at the school to which they are assigned and notifying parents of the process for objecting to the use of specific materials.”
School Library Media Centers and Reading Lists
Now specifies that “Each elementary school must publish on its website, in a searchable format, a list of all materials maintained and accessible in the school library media center or a classroom library which can be checked out or used by a student or required as part of a school or grade-level reading list. “
(A similar section requires that the Board also adopt and publish on its website the process for a parent to limit their student’s access to materials in the school or classroom library. Additionally, language was added requiring the Board to make available a process and objection form on the homepage of the District’s website.)
Complaints Against Instructional Staff
New language provides that anonymous letters or materials that do not affect the life, safety, or health of a staff member or student shall not be investigated or used in any proceedings against an instructional staff member or be placed in the instructional staff member’s personnel file. (This same prohibition was also added elsewhere to apply to complaints against support staff.)
Wireless Communication Devices
The new policy disallows the use of Wireless Communications Devices (WCDs) by students during instructional periods and generally prohibits access of social media platforms utilizing District internet access.
Effective for students entering grade 9 in the 2023-2024 school year and thereafter:
“Beginning with the 2023-24 school year, high school students enrolled in the U.S. Government classes required by F.S. 1003.4282 must receive at least forty-five (45) minutes of instruction on “Victims of Communism Day” to include topics such as Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, Joseph Stalin and the Soviet System, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution, Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Revolution, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and Nicolás Maduro and the Chavismo movement, and how victims suffered under these regimes through poverty, starvation, migration, systemic lethal violence, and suppression of speech.
Beginning in the 2023-2024 school year, middle school and high school students enrolled in the civics education class required by F.S. 1003.4156 or the United States Government class required by F.S. 1003.4282(3) must receive at least forty (45) minutes of instruction on “9/11 Heroes’ Day” topics involving the history and significance of September 11, 2001, including remembering the sacrifice of military personnel, government employees, civilians, and emergency responders who were killed, wounded, or suffered sickness due to the terrorist attacks on or after that date.”
Added – The Principal shall notify all school personnel as to their obligation to report to the Principal those acts and/or crimes which pose a threat to school safety. School personnel must also properly document the disposition of any such incident. The School Board has zero tolerance for conduct that poses a threat to school safety. Zero-tolerance policies must apply equally to all students and are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct. This policy minimizes the victimization of students, staff, and volunteers and requires that necessary steps be taken to protect the victim of any violent act from any further victimization. In a disciplinary action, there is a rebuttable presumption that the actions of a student who intervened, using only the amount of force necessary, to stop a violent act against a student, staff, or volunteer were necessary to restore or maintain the safety of others.
The school’s threat management team will consult with law enforcement when a student exhibits a pattern of behavior, based on previous acts or the severity of an act that would pose a threat to school safety.
Religious And Other Ceremonies And Observances
Language added – “The School Board acknowledges that the U.S. Constitution prohibits it from adopting any policy or rule promoting or establishing a religion or any policy that unlawfully restricts any person’s free exercise of the individual right to worship enjoyed by all persons. Within the confines to this legal framework, the Board adopts the following policy to address the scope of these rights and the District’s authority within its own facilities or during events.
As public employees, while on duty and acting within the scope of employment or pursuant to official duties as opposed to in their capacity as private citizens, District staff members shall not use prayer, religious readings, or religious symbols as a devotional exercise or in an act of worship or celebration. Staff are expected to avoid circumstances where the staff member’s expression of religious views could be reasonably construed as an endorsement or approval of the message by the school or District. Nothing in this policy or its application shall serve to prohibit or interfere with any staff member’s free exercise of their religious views in circumstances not covered by this policy.”