P-S Action Unknown After 10-Hour Hearing

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The Pine-Strawberry School Board held student disciplinary hearings for 10 hours Wednesday to decide the fate of three junior high boys accused of sexually assaulting one or more female classmates on school grounds.

The board's decision, however, will not be made public.

Although board spokesperson Patty Horton said earlier this week the board's decision would be made in open session, the board took action privately in executive session at the request of the boys' parents.

By state law, the board's five members and other school officials and representatives are barred from discussing any action taken in executive session.

Normally government boards are only allowed to discuss certain legal issues in executive session and are required to take action in public. Student disciplinary matters, however, are an exception.

According to Arizona's open meeting laws, the "actions involving the 'discipline, suspension or expulsion of a pupil' are not subject to the provisions of the Open Meeting Law unless requested by the parents or legal guardian of the pupil or by an emancipated pupil."

Although Myndi Brogdon, one of the three board members who presided over the hearings, couldn't discuss the board's decision, she did say that she thinks P-S Elementary School students are safe.

"The focus of all action that we take in any hearing is in the best interest of all children," she said. "As a board, our focus is on all the children, even if they're not our model students. We want to help everyone."

The boys' alleged sexual misconduct was reported Feb. 17 to school administrators and the Gila County Sheriff's Department was called to investigate.

Two of the boys were placed on 10-day suspensions Feb. 18 and the other boy was placed on a 10-day suspension Feb. 19.

School officials and sheriff's investigators, who investigated the allegations, are not releasing specific details about the case, including the boys' ages, how many victims may be involved, how many incidents have been documented and the nature of the alleged sexual misconduct.

"I can't discuss the specifics, but I can talk all day about the steps we're taking to make sure we have a safe climate at the school," Pine-Strawberry Elementary School Principal Richard Soikkeli said. "I think the students are responding pretty well."

After the allegations were reported, school officials supplemented the school's annual sex-ed program with segregated workshops on male-female relationships and what is and isn't acceptable behavior.

"The board is considering adding to our existing sex-ed curriculum components that would further address the dynamics in boy-girl relationships, peer pressure and how to handle it," Soikkeli said.

Gila County Sheriff's investigator George Ratliff said Thursday that his office had finished its investigation and the case had been referred to juvenile probation for review.

Pine school officials said earlier this week that the board could expel or suspend the boys during the hearings.

Once a student has been expelled from a public school, he or she is prohibited by Arizona law from enrolling in any other public school in the state.

"Expulsion in Arizona is a really radical step," Rim Country Middle School Principal Frank Larby said. "What the law says is that they're barred from any public school in Arizona.

"We wouldn't accept a student who had been expelled from somewhere else. It would take board action to allow them to enroll."

Private school officials can accept students who have been expelled from public schools, he said, but they also have the right to refuse admission.

It's often difficult, however, to find out if a student has been expelled from another school, Larby said. Some schools attach a note to the student's school records, but some don't.

There isn't a standard for notification, he said.

Larby did say, however, that his staff will carefully scrutinize any new enrollment requests from Pine.

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