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Education Committee Debates Then Holds Bills

May 20, 2005 – The Senate Education, Culture and Youth Committee, after receiving several hours of testimony Friday, decided to hold several education initiatives in committee.
Committee Chairman Sen. Liston A. Davis had called the morning session to consider three measures: a bill establishing the Spread the Word program in the Education Department; a bill providing a territorial policy on school bullying, harassment and intimidation; and a bill mandating the Board of Education to increase its graduation requirements for high school physical education from two to four years. Officials from the Education Department, Board of Education and American Federation of Teachers were invited to provide testimony on the bills; however, none of the education officials supported enactment of the measures although they heaped commendations on the bills sponsors for their intent.
In light of the officials' testimonies, senators voted to hold all the measures in committee.
The Spread the Word Program bill, sponsored by Sen. Roosevelt David, sought to provide books for elementary school children in kindergarten through 5th grade through book drives to be held at various donor schools.
Education Commissioner Noreen Michael commended David for the intent of the measure, but said the legislation was unclear as to what is expected of the department and parents once the books were distributed. Michael also expressed concern that some of the donated books would not be in good condition.
"Past experience with book drives in the schools over the years have not yielded the results that has been anticipated relative to the quantity and quality of books donated," Michael said. "Also, there are several community organizations that conduct ongoing book drives."
William Frett, St. Thomas-St. John superintendent of schools, agreed.
"Personally, I do not feel that this effort needs to be legislated," Frett said.
Sens. Terrence "Positive" Nelson and Usie Richards concurred with Frett. "We should not just put forth legislation just for legislation sake," said Richards. "At this point this legislation is not necessary."
David said several other states have similar types of programs and 32,000 students were already benefiting on the mainland. He questioned why senators felt such a program would not be appropriate in the Virgin Islands.
"And we wonder why our children are lagging behind," David said. "It's because of this mentality."
Nelson said the program encouraged literacy, but it was unnecessary to bog down the Education Department with the program. He suggested to his colleague that legislation should be brought forth mandating that public libraries remain open until 8 p.m. instead.
"The libraries close at four, and the children can't get to read the books," Nelson said. "That's what we need to legislate."
Richards motioned for the bill to be held in committee until amended, and his motion was passed with a 4-3 vote. Sens. Davis, Shawn-Michael Malone, Nelson and Richards voted in favor of the motion. Sens. David, Juan Figueroa-Serville and Louis P. Hill voted against the motion.
Another bill sponsored by David was also held in committee. The bill would have mandated the Education commissioner to adopt a territorial policy on school bullying, harassment and intimidation, and provide copies to all schools, students and parents. It also called for workshops to be held annually to inform students and parents of their rights.
Judy Gomez, chairwoman of the Board of Education, told the committee the legislation was "commendable," but the board already had a territorial student disciplinary policy in place, which is a "comprehensive approach" to addressing student conduct.
The board's policy was first established in 1988 and later amended in 2002, Gomez said. She said it addresses four levels of offenses and provides "appropriate" disciplinary action for each level.
"We believe that the laws of this territory evince a framework in which the Board of Education is recognized as the appropriate entity to develop and enforce rules and regulations relating to student conduct in our public schools," Gomez said. "We strongly urge the committee to allow the Board of Education to continue to adopt and amend policies regarding student conduct."
David asked if the board's policy was placed in the student handbook given to parents. Michael said it was not placed in its entirety in the handbook, but it was referenced. David said he knew of parents whose children were being bullied and did not know the proper course of action to take.
Frett said parents were told to accompany their children to orientation at the beginning of the school year because matters such as bullying are discussed then.
David moved for the committee to approve the legislation, but his motion failed with a 3-3 vote. David, Figueroa-Serville, and Hill voted in the affirmative. Davis, Nelson and Richards voted against. Malone was absent.
Richards moved that the bill be tabled indefinitely, but his motion also failed on the same 3-3 vote. The bill will now remain in committee and can be brought up again in the future.
The third bill held in committee Friday was a measure sponsored by Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste that apparently sought to curb obesity among the territory's youth by requiring physical education classes throughout the four years of high school. Senators unanimously voted to hold the bill in committee because the bill's sponsor, who is not a member of the Education Committee, did not include a letter detailing his intent. St. Croix Federation of Teachers President Tyrone Molyneaux told senators they should write legislation to bar the operation of soda machines and other vending machines on school campuses instead if their intent is to curb obesity.
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