School guidelines 'state the obvious'

LUCY TOWNEND
Last updated 12:00 07/02/2014

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The 101 of what schools can, and can't, do when it comes to searching, seizing and scrutinising suspicious students' property has been set out.

The Ministry of Education delivered a 34-page document outlining schools' power over surrender and retention of student belongings this week - including scenarios of how to deal with drugs, pornography and weapons.

Palmerston North principals are calling the rules common sense, saying they merely legitimise techniques already well practised in schools.

The guidelines follow the recently amended Education Act, which came into effect last month, and detail what staff who suspect wrongdoing from students can legally do about it.

The law does not enable schools to search a student's property without their permission, do blanket class searches or body searches and pat downs. But discipline can be used should a student refuse to allow the search, and it is permissible to use sniffer dogs or call in parents and police.

The ministry says the new guidelines are not an addition to the law, but are a hands-on guide to how schools can correctly implement it.

The guidelines include flow charts that outline how to deal with dangerous situations and things that may have "a negative influence on the learning environment", such as bullying texts, drugs, laser pens, steel rulers, compasses, craft knives, scissors, guns, alcohol, spray cans, gang insignia and sexually explicit photographs of other students.

Freyberg High School principal Peter Brooks said the guidelines may be "stating the blindingly obvious", but added assurance to schools' practices.

"This won't make any difference at all to what has always been done, because we've always made it clear the safety of students has got to be paramount," he said.

"But it is reassuring [in some way] because there was always a bit of uncertainty when you got questioned about what you were allowed and weren't allowed to do before.

"In the past we would have erred on the side of caution, and if it wasn't straightforward we would call the police in and use their powers."

Palmerston North Boys' High School rector David Bovey said the guidelines were useful for clarifying aspects of the Education Act.

"The key element is that we are entitled to do our utmost to ensure we provide a safe environment for our young men," he said.

"The type of situation that would involve these guidelines are ones that as schools we shouldn't have to deal with - items of a harmful nature have no place in schools."

Any search of students' clothing, bags or storage spots, such as lockers, has to be recorded and students must be given privacy and dignity consistent with the search purpose.

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The ministry's deputy secretary of sector enablement, Katrina Casey, said safety in schools was the top priority.

"While there are some limits on how far school staff can go in searching a student or their property, schools will always be able to call in police where they have serious concerns."

Education Minister Hekia Parata has said further improvements on the guidelines would be considered when they had been in place for a while. A committee has also been set up to tackle guidelines on managing cyber-bullying and giving teachers the power to confiscate and delete inappropriate material.

- Manawatu Standard

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