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Watertown school board to amend code of conduct; K-12 principal appointed

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WATERTOWN — The Watertown City School District’s Board of Education on Tuesday held a public hearing on amendments to the code of conduct and approved a new K-12 principal.

The school board appointed Steven Newcombe as K-12 principal, effective Aug. 29. Mr. Newcombe has been a teacher in the district for 17 years, and there will be a three-year probationary period until August 2025.

Just one community member, Milly C. Smith, commented on the code of conduct Tuesday and offered suggestions to be considered before the document’s approval. There will be a special school board meeting at 7:30 a.m. next Tuesday for the purpose of approving the code of conduct before the start of the new school year. Watertown schools start Sept. 6.

Having last been updated in September 2021, a majority of the code of conduct remains unchanged or was lightly modified — “penalties” was changed to “consequences” and “misbehavior” was changed to “behavioral choices,” for example. The code also added nicotine, vapes, e-cigarettes and marijuana when referencing smoking.

“It’s a good policy, but here’s my question: If this policy has been in place for a long time, and this is just a revision in verbiage and maybe some other things that you’ve added or maybe taken away, then why are we still having the problems that we’re having?” Mrs. Smith asked. “Because it seems to me that the code of conduct is very succinct, it’s precise. It says if you do this, if you vape, if you have marijuana, if you beat someone up, if you’re not behaving in a proper form, there’s a consequence.”

Mrs. Smith said she began attending school board meetings toward the end of last school year when there were physical fights reported at the school.

The district has appointed building principals as Dignity Act coordinators for their respective schools. New York’s Dignity for All Students Act, or Dignity Act, aims to make school environments free of discrimination and harassment.

Watertown’s coordinators, according to the code of conduct, are trained in methods to respond to human relations in the areas of race, color, creed, body type, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, gender (including gender identity or expression) and sex. The coordinators are available to speak with any person who has witnessed possible discrimination or harassment, or if that person has experienced treatment that may be prohibited discrimination or harassment.

Those coordinators are Chad Fairchild, principal of Watertown High; Mark Taylor, principal of Case Middle; Daniel Mincer, principal of H.T. Wiley Intermediate; Janelle Dupee, principal of Knickerbocker Elementary; Sandra Cain, principal of North Elementary; Jessica Blair, principal of Ohio Elementary; Terrance Gonseth, principal of Sherman Elementary; and Michael Lennox, principal of Starbuck Elementary.

According to the code of conduct, the principal or their designee is responsible for enforcing the code. When the principal or their designee sees someone engaged in prohibited conduct, which in their judgment does not pose any immediate threat of injury to others or property, the principal or designee is required to tell the individual that the conduct is prohibited and attempt to persuade them to stop.

The principal or designee is also responsible for warning the person of the consequences for failing to stop. If the person refuses to stop engaging in the prohibited conduct, or if the person’s conduct poses an immediate threat of injury to persons or property, the principal or designee may have the person removed immediately from school property or a school function. If necessary, local law enforcement authorities may assist in removing the person, according to the code.

Despite these appointments, Mrs. Smith said it is clear that there is no consistent body of people that are addressing indiscretions, whether they be administrative, student, parent or teacher indiscretions.

“There is no formal impartial body — it’s all subjective,” she said. “So something happens at the high school, Mr. Fairchild has to address it. He may address the situation very different from where Mr. Taylor might address the situation at Case Middle School. So, from the outside looking in, I would ask the board to consider putting together a body of people that would be impartial and have some consistency in what some of these punishments are going to be if the student or the teacher or whoever breaks the rule.”

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