WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Questions are stirring around a Newton Public School board meeting. It comes after a vote to change their student code of conduct policy.
Multiple community members reached out to KSN asking whether or not this meeting was held legally, and several questioned the Board of Education’s decision.
Board member Andy Ortiz told KSN members are usually given a 48-hour notice before a special meeting. He says he received less than 24-hour notice for this meeting. Ortiz said he initially received an email about a situation involving a student early Tuesday afternoon. A few hours later, he learned there would be a meeting Wednesday evening.
At the board meeting, which was not live-streamed, Ortiz said the board went into executive session for three hours, then voted on the change to “The Railer Way Code of Conduct.” It’s an 11-page document that “describes the essential qualities of the student athlete/activities participant.”
The board voted 4-2 to add a statement to the document saying, “Every situation is different, and administration reserves the right to deviate from the Code of Conduct when deemed appropriate.”
Ortiz voted against the change.
“There’s a lot of ambiguity in those changes where you leave it up to people’s discretion, but that can also leave open doors for things to be changed without us having a process that maybe most people don’t agree with,” said Ortiz. “So at the end of the day, I think it was a little disheartening to do things as fast as we did. And I think the community is sharing their concerns about what’s going on. And it’s pretty interesting to see them trying to fill the gaps with information that we really can’t speak about.”
Ortiz said he’s hearing concerns from the community about how quickly the meeting was called, as well as the decision that was made.
“I think it opens the door for a lot because we did it so fast,” Ortiz said. “I worry about people being bullied, frankly, into making decisions they don’t want to make and without a process taking place, which can be dangerous in a big system.”
One board member was absent from the vote. Brenna Haines said she was uncomfortable taking part due to conflicting answers about the legality of the meeting.
“The board attorney said on speaker phone at the beginning of the meeting that unless everyone signs the waiver of meeting notice, it was illegal to meet,” said Haines in a written response to KSN questions. She said a further call to the Kansas Association of School Boards attorney (KASB) gave a response that, “it was okay to meet if four signed the waiver.”
She left the meeting before the vote was taken.
“This was crazy. We should not be meeting under duress,” said Haines wrote to KSN. “We had four board members that are extremely biased, and we did not have time to even read (refresh knowledge of) the Railer Way handbook, high school code of conduct, nothing, ahead of time.”
“I was kind of appalled that I was even at the meeting after hearing the whole thing,” said Ortiz. “I don’t even believe we should have had this meeting, frankly.”
KSN reached out to all board members, a district spokesperson and the superintendent.
“I cannot comment on matters dealing with student discipline,” said Superintendent Fred Van Ranken, through a spokesperson. When KSN followed up to clarify we wanted to ask about policy, the communications director said, “School districts work and operate at the will of their board of education.”
The school board president declined an on-camera interview, saying it would be unethical to discuss the executive session. Other board members did not respond to KSN’s request for comment on the meeting.
Ortiz hopes the board — as well as the community — can move forward.
“There are a lot of growing pains that we’re going through right now. But we will make good of this. We will make this an opportunity to grow,” Ortiz said.
The Newton Board of Education will have its next meeting on Monday, and Ortiz said he expects a big community turnout.
You can find the old Railer Way Code of Conduct below. The new policy with the added statement has not yet been released: