The Howard County school system is writing new policies and guidelines on everything from plagiarism to parent-teacher conferences, after two controversies over students' academic records roiled the county last school year.
Both of those incidents centered on accusations that students' grades were changed improperly. The first involved a varsity football player at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia who should have been ineligible to play last fall but was allowed on the team because his report card was altered, school officials said. Oakland Mills was forced to forfeit its winning season and a spot in the state playoffs as a result.
In the second case, top school system administrators Kimberly Statham and Roger L. Plunkett were accused of using their positions to alter academic records for Statham's daughter, who was a student at Centennial High School in Ellicott City. Both administrators were exonerated of wrongdoing, but the controversy has divided the Centennial community.
The cases have highlighted the sometimes vague or contradictory policies and procedures that govern student records. The new measures are the first detailed public attempt by the school system to address some of those issues.
"We have to assure that we're secure in this area," school board Chairman Courtney Watson said.
Changes could come in five areas, according to a report presented last week to the board. They are plagiarism, student course withdrawal and grade changes, academic eligibility for extracurricular activities, parent-teacher conferences and dealing with unresolved concerns at school.
Some of the most significant steps involve drafting new guidelines for teachers, parents and students. School staff members have been asked this summer to develop standards for student writing that would include information on plagiarism. Teachers will receive curriculum on the topic in the coming school year as well. Next summer, school officials will create style manuals to help students understand what material should be attributed in their writing.
"You cannot have inconsistent standards from teacher to teacher, school to school," board member Sandra H. French said.
Schools are also hoping to improve parent-teacher conferences with written instructions for teachers on how to conduct those meetings. A revised guidebook for families on elementary parent-teacher conferences will be available this school year, and guides for parents of middle and high school students are forthcoming. A training video for staff members is also in the works.
School staffs also are tightening practices for reviewing students' eligibility for athletic teams. Training about student records will be mandatory for principals.
Don Disney, the county's coordinator of athletics, said he would brief new principals about student eligibility and audit student athlete records from one high school each sports season to ensure they are correct.
School staff members also are creating an administrative handbook that officially covers how all policies are implemented. Previously, that has been outlined in memos.
The school staff also is examining the prospect of an ombudsman being hired to mediate conflicts and field questions from the public.