- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
New rules for visitors to St. Mary’s County public elementary schools ban hugs and homemade food to anyone other than a parent’s own child.
The guidelines, which are now in effect, limit the activities of some volunteers, school officials said, but are needed to ensure a safe environment.
A committee of several parents and principals from elementary schools in St. Mary’s County met four times last fall to review and recommend new best practices for schools to follow. The new guidelines limit lunchtime and recess visits, ban handing out birthday invitations at school and prohibit visits during the school day by younger siblings.
“We think it’s the right balance between safety and parental involvement,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of elementary schools and Title I.
She said that elementary principals had reported many issues related to school visitors.
“At the same time, parents were expressing some concerns,” Hall said.
Parents should not approach teachers for a conference while visiting, according to the rules. Those meetings should be scheduled ahead of time.
Siblings of students are not allowed to visit the school with the parent during the school day. It was unclear this week if exceptions would be made for student performances where parents and others are invited.
All visitors must sign in and out on a computer in a school’s front office, where they will have their picture captured by a computer camera.
Superintendent Michael Martirano said Wednesday that schools are not open to anyone who wants to walk in, and that only people with real business should be there.
“We’re not violating anybody’s rights,” he said, adding that the school’s legal counsel had looked over the best practices.
The school board plans to review its formal policy on school visitation, which was last updated in 1998, later this spring or summer.
“I think this is horrible,” board member Cathy Allen said Wednesday, adding that she does understand the need for the new rules.
“Certainly, elements of this are going to decrease parent involvement. It’s just the nature of the beast,” Allen said.
Board member Mary Washington said that schools, unfortunately, have become targets of violence in recent years. “We are entrusted to protect all our students,” Washington said of the reason for the new rules.
The committee met and decided on the best practices before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December that left 26 people dead, including 20 students, Hall said. The schools decided to roll out the new rules immediately.
“Everybody’s anxiety is high,” she said. Still, “we want to be reasonable,” and will leave open the possibility of reworking the rules after they are tried out the rest of this school year, she said.
Sherry Whittles, a parent of a Town Creek student, said that there were intense discussions over the new rules during the committee meetings. “It is sad that it needs to be done for the safety of our children,” she said, adding that she did not think any of the rules went too far.
The no-hugging guideline could be difficult, she acknowledged, because often it is a child who approaches an adult visitor for a hug.
Birthday invitations should not be handed out at school, Hall said, because students who are not invited could have their feelings hurt. She said school PTAs could develop phone and email contact lists, with parents’ approval, to distribute.
Foods for celebrations should be limited to store-bought items that contain ingredient lists so as not to interfere with children’s food allergies, according to the rules.
Parents visiting the cafeteria should not hug or touch children other than their own, nor should they discipline other children, the guidelines say. Parents should also not walk with their child when he or she leaves the cafeteria.
Prior approval is not needed to visit a child during lunch; however, some schools may have more specific rules based on available space, Hall said.
Only registered volunteers are allowed on playgrounds. And even then, they are not to play with children other than their own, including pushing on swings.
The school system several years ago began issuing volunteer badges to parents and others who registered. Those volunteers are given background checks and have their photographs and fingerprints taken.
Mike Wyant, director of safety and security, said that with almost 16,000 registered volunteers, the system was overwhelmed and stopped issuing the actual identification badges. Security screenings are still done.
Wyant said schools will be offered badges without expiration dates to give high-frequency volunteers, perhaps those who are in the school more than once a week helping out. Others will now just be given an identification number the volunteer can use to sign in.