Debate continues over locker room supervision

State senator is preparing a bill that would require locker rooms to be supervised at all times.

Kanapaha Middle School Physical Education teacher Kevin Hayes monitors the locker room while students dress and head back to class Thursday, January 21, 2010.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 11:28 p.m.

The boy was only 13 years old when four flag football teammates allegedly used a broom handle and a hockey stick to sexually assault him in May 2009.

If that Hillsborough County attack isn't already bad enough, authorities said the same victim suffered such abuse numerous other times inside a Walker Middle School locker room.

The shocking case led state Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, to begin preparing a bill that would require all Florida school districts to supervise locker rooms at all times.

Her idea, which the Legislature will take up during the session that starts this spring, is creating a buzz locally.

Is this over-reacting? Does such a law invade student privacy? The answers are divided.

While Marion County Public Schools has required locker room supervision for decades, Alachua County Public Schools has not.

Marion officials enacted the policy to stop horsing around - towel slapping and such - that leads to slips and falls.

But risk management is only part of the reason. Marion administrators say supervision is important to keep students in line.

"Adults do deter kids from making bad decisions," Lake Weir High principal Cynthia Saunders said.

Alachua school officials, on the other hand, say they use a common-sense approach. They supervise locker rooms when they see the need. They want to give students their privacy as long as they play by the rules.

"I don't know if I would feel comfortable to be in a locker room with students" as they dress and undress for gym class, said Charley Wise, Alachua's athletic director, who oversees locker room supervision.

At Santa Fe High School in Alachua, they do not require supervision of students dressing before and after gym class, principal Bill Herschleb said.

The administrator believes the proposed law goes overboard. If established, it will punish everyone for the misdeeds of only a few.

"We have not had any problems here. It would be just another unfunded mandate and we already have plenty of them," Herschleb said.

Officials with both school districts agree on one thing: Storms' law would be just another on a long list of unfunded legislative mandates. And most agree the move would be overacting to one isolated, albeit horrific, incident.

After all, some say, there's enough laws on the books that address such crimes, and that locker rooms are very safe the majority of the time.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has weighed in on the topic, stating that safety and privacy must be carefully balanced.

Courtenay Strickland, director of public policy for ACLU of Florida, said her group will be looking carefully at the bill when it is filed.

She said the ACLU wants all children to be safe, but such efforts must be balanced with privacy. "We can do both."

Storms said the issue is simple. Adult supervision should be required because "parents expect school districts to keep their children safe."

"Kids should be supervised," she said.

She said she is not over-reacting to an isolated incident.

Not to mention that, during this electronic age, children can use cell phones to photograph and videotape classmates dressing, undressing or in the shower, Storms said.

"I think it's a reasonable expectation for a PE coach to supervise the locker room," she said.

Originally, newspapers in Storms' district reported the bill would require supervision of student restrooms.

But "that was not my intention," the senator said. "I don't want to give all the school district [administrators] heart attacks."

Storms said she realizes kids are unsupervised in restrooms, as well, but that is another issue that may cross over the privacy line.

She said teachers are in hallways near the restrooms during class changes. However, the teachers are not around when a student gets out of class to go.

"I think after this bill, I want to focus on the safety of children on school buses," she said. "Bottom line is that all children should be safe at school."

Joe Callahan can be reached at 352-867-4113

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