WHS’ Student Handbook: What you need to know

The WHS Handbook is promoted by the administration at the beginning of each school year. However, most students never hear about it again and struggle to recall a single policy from the 56-page document.

The handbook is presumably as old as WHS itself, but it notes on the cover page that it was updated for the 2017-2018 school year. 

There are some outdated policies that lead to unnecessary cluttering of the handbook. Policies concerning secret societies or rollerblading through the halls have continued to take up space in this document since its last update. 

It’s imperative that the WHS community, students and administration work together to create a handbook that is current, inclusive and accessible to all students. Creating a new narrative through policies for future students is essential for moving forward in the 2021-2022 school year, as more supportive and relevant policies today would positively impact the WHS students of the future. 

As students, raising the following topics as issues to improve or change can help get them on the agenda during the next Board of Education or administrative review of the handbook, which occurs every few years. Student voices have the power to create real, positive change. This article focuses on just a few of the areas that should be added, edited or updated for more student and staff accessibility and subsequently more positive progress through inclusivity.

It’s imperative that the WHS community, students and administration work together to create a handbook that is current, inclusive and accessible to all students.”

Accessibility

The first time the handbook is mentioned is at the yearly grade-level meetings in September, where students are encouraged to read the handbook in their free time. 

Students are unlikely to choose to do so, due to the fact that many feel that this is not important for their academic careers at WHS. If a student does choose to read the handbook, they will need to independently find where the handbook is located. Because its whereabouts are not made clear to students, finding it on the website could serve as a deterrent for students to actually read it.

Once the student has reached the handbook, the lack of hyperlinks or separated categories within the table of contents makes navigating it difficult. WHS Guidance Counselor Faith Qualshie explained how it can be frustrating to quickly locate a specific topic or policy. Qualshie said she would like to see the handbook “update its digital capabilities to make it more accessible for everybody.” 

Adding hyperlinks to the table of contents is a simple change that can be made for better navigation of the handbook. Not only would students be able to access topics that may concern them more quickly, but faculty would have better access to the handbook, helping with their day-to-day responsibilities.   

Mental Health

There are five major goals and objectives that administrators set for students in the handbook. The document states that WHS encourages students “to develop and nurture in each student a sense of self-worth; of the importance of physical, social, and mental health; and of the challenge to explore, define, and commit to personal values.”   

Despite its apparent importance to the administration, this excerpt is the only time that mental health is mentioned in our student handbook. The absence of information could lead to confusion for students as to where to find resources and who to turn to regarding mental health.

Ultimately, raising awareness and encouraging students to invest in their mental health can combat the stigma that oftentimes surrounds the topic. ”

Recent progress in mental health awareness has been made, with the creation of the Silver Linings Club at WHS and the creation of the town-wide Mental Health Committee for the wellbeing of students. Including information about these types of resources in the handbook could help students in need. 

WHS Principal Mary Asfendis explained how the lack of mental health inclusion is something that the administration would like to expand on in the future. “If there are student suggestions, I think that would be a great thing to add,” said Asfendis. 

Summit High School’s attention to this topic could serve as inspiration for future additions to our handbook. One section in this handbook entitled “Social emotional learning and stress management,” in which the Summit administrators acknowledge the new and difficult challenges that have followed the pandemic, is a valuable resource. This section makes it clear that “counselors, child study team members, district staff and administrators will work to support programming in strengthening our mental health and supporting healthy growth and development for our students.” 

The current stress many students are experiencing because of the pandemic, as well as the pressure of school in general, are outlined explicitly in Summit’s handbook. Adding similar language and a list of resources into a mental health section in our handbook would allow students to feel both informed and supported during their time at WHS. 

Ultimately, raising awareness and encouraging students to invest in their mental health can help to combat the stigma that oftentimes surrounds this topic. 

Sexual Harassment

Although the sexual harassment policy was recently updated, everyone at WHS could benefit from further expansion and more depth in this section of the handbook. To start, it would be helpful to add information clarifying which behaviors are classified as harassment. 

In addition, the wording in the current policy fails to clearly identify where a student can and should go to report sexual harassment. Included in this section currently is a long list of the ways that this behavior can be reported, but it is rather clunky. 

Following this, the handbook states that a student can report this behavior to the school’s Affirmative Action Officer, who, as outlined on page 50, is WHS Principal Mary Asfendis. 

In a potential revision of this document, a more clear and descriptive list of contacts is one of the most important alterations that can be made. If a student has been sexually harassed or assaulted, the addition of a straightforward and clear step-by-step directional list of how to report their case and who to report it to would greatly benefit victims of sexual harassment. 

The additions of these simple changes would aid students in reporting cases as well as clear up any possible confusion pertaining to this salient section.   

Student Support Services

Giving students the necessary support and fulfilling legal duties in the case of child abuse is another topic that should be considered for addition in the next update. According to New Jersey law, “any person having reasonable cause to believe that a child has been abused or neglected by a parent or caregiver is required to immediately notify [Child Protection & Permanency].” 

Despite the fact that this law is included in the handbook for staff, WHS students are not given information on how to report or find help if they are being abused at home. A vital addition for the safety and well-being of students is to create a student support services section that refers to child abuse and neglect. 

The Summit High School Handbook states that they will comply with the New Jersey law, as well as what a staff member should do if they suspect abuse. Further ensuring a student’s safety, it also describes on page 42 that “the staff member will also report the incident to school administrators who will report it to the superintendent and the police.”

A vital addition for the safety and well-being of students is to create a student support services section that refers to child abuse and neglect. ”

 

Adding this small but important section could assure students who may be abused or neglected at home that there truly is a readily available network of people that can help them with their situation.  

Dress Code

Dress codes, another crucial aspect of many schools’ handbooks, have been updated to reflect and better accommodate progressive student bodies by re-evaluating their previously vague descriptions. 

The handbook at WHS uses this progressive tone, but even with the revamped language, this section exemplifies the inevitable hiccups that come with certain phrasing and language. 

One potential issue lies in the subjective requirement on page 20. The handbook reads, “Students Shall Not: dress in a way or wear clothing that is disruptive.” The question here is: What exactly does “disruptive” mean? 

In some cases, removing a student from class due to improper adherence to the dress code could be more “disruptive” than keeping the student in the class. 

In the unprecedented times of online school, the dress code, as stated in our handbook, has become an even larger gray area. Is it possible for a student’s clothing to be “disruptive” during remote learning? 

“It’s just really frustrating. I got privately messaged a couple of times in a class for wearing a tank top when only my shoulders were visible,” said WHS senior Mia Grogan. “I understand why that would be inappropriate in school, but I’m sitting in my room so the idea that showing a sliver of my shoulders on camera is suggestive or should be reprimanded is a little excessive.” 

Due to unclear phrasing in the handbook, it can be hard for students to realize what is not allowed until it is too late. It’s imperative that students are aware of what exactly could be deemed inappropriate, distracting, or, as the policy states, “disruptive.” 

Asfendis said that the dress code has become less strict over the years, and she would hope that students know that “when [a student] goes into a certain situation they should dress the part.” 

Clearly explaining what “disruptive” entails would not only allow for students to be better prepared when getting dressed in the morning, but it would also curb the frequency of the educational interruption that takes place when a student is in violation of the dress code.  

How Can I Use My Student Voice to Help? 

Student involvement in additions or edits to this document is imperative. Understanding student responsibilities and the influence the student body can hold over the handbook is the first step towards fixing any issues within the handbook. 

Echoing this sentiment, Asfendis said, “Student feedback is a great idea that has never been explored before.” She hopes to see students as part of the process in the future for revisions and updates. “A lot of changes are a result of students taking action on things like this,” Asfendis said. 

 Advocating for the technological accessibility and overall changes to be made in the handbook can reimagine the environment of WHS for both current and incoming students. 

Working together with the administration, students can call for the necessary changes to transform the handbook into a frequently used, progressive, clear and supportive document for all.