Problem solvers: When schools, parents can't see eye to eye, Education Ombudsman can find middle ground
February 7, 2012 · Updated 12:26 PM
When her freshman son was severely beaten in a Mount Si High School locker room in 2009, Fall City parent and recent Snoqualmie Valley school board challenger Peggy Johnson wanted someone to take his side.
She turned to the Washington State Office of the Education Ombudsman, a six-year-old agency that resolves problems between Washington families and their schools.
Now a junior, Johnson's son—whose name is not being published due to his age—was 14 at the time of the locker room beating. He told Snoqualmie police that he was defending a friend from bullying by a group of students, when another, older boy intervened, and the confrontation got physical. No teachers were around, and Johnson said her son never raised his fists; the older boy was later found not guilty of assault in court.
After a desperate phone call from her son, Johnson arrived at school to find him bleeding from the eye, nose and mouth, head over a trash can, after having gone back to the locker room to find a missing tooth. No medical aid had been called in nearly an hour, and during the ride to the hospital, her son started vomiting blood. Doctors found that he had suffered a broken eye socket, broken teeth and a concussion.
Johnson's concerns deepened in the aftermath of the beating. She told the Record that school administrators were adamant that her son return to school quickly, but she insisted that a satisfactory safety plan be put in place first. She connected with the ombudsman's office, which stepped in as mediator, helping craft a plan to ensure her sons's safety.
When the ombudsman got involved, "It immediately turned things around," Johnson said.
The Office of the Education Ombudsman was created in 2006 to help parents and school officials find common ground, on a child's behalf.
Typical issues addressed by the office include bullying and harassment, suspension, expulsion, special education, transportation, discipline, academic progress and truancy. Officials with the OEO help parents understand their legal rights, how public schools are run and governed, and how to complain so that people will listen. The office also helps parents find ways to get involved in their child's education, and take a stand against bullying. Its services are free.
"We are advocates for fair processes for students," said Cathy Liu Scott, community relations manager for the OEO. "We try to find out what the core problem is. We help parents and educators think creatively to solve problems."
The ombudsman's office responded to 11 complaints in the Snoqualmie Valley School District in the 2010-11 school year, about one complaint per 560 pupils, according to the OEO annual report. That ratio puts Snoqualmie at the second-highest complaint-per-pupil ratio, behind Seattle Public Schools. Snoqualmie tied for 12th most calls with Vancouver schools.
In 2009-10, Snoqualmie Valley School District had five cases—two for bullying and harassment, two for enrollment issues and one for special education. The district also had five calls in 2008, which included one for bullying, one for discipline, one for special education, and one for a request for ombudsman publications.
Snoqualmie schools' particular complaint volumes aren't alarming, says Adie Simmons, director of the Office of the Education Ombudsman. But, noticing that bullying is trending upward statewide, Simmons said that ombudsman's office is spreading word that Washington needs better anti-bullying legislation.
Most of the parental calls to the ombudsman's office are for special education issues, with discipline, bullying and parental involvement following.
According to Scott, the ombudsman's office is a resource for parents who don't understand their rights or role.
"We are the people you call when you are frustrated and don't know what else to do," she said, "when you're hitting a roadblock and are unable to move forward."
The biggest red flag, Scott says, is when a child is not in school. Ombudsmen also step in if a student is in danger of failing to graduate.
Often, a communication breakdown is to blame. Parents and educators aren't always able to listen to each other, Scott said. That's why ombudsmen are trained in conflict resolution—their job is to be outside the system, looking at problems from both sides.
Every district has its strengths and weaknesses. Some districts may have administrators who are not well-trained in conflict resolution, or in dealing with parents who are emotional or upset.
"The system needs to look at parents as natural allies," Scott said. "Parents can do a lot of things to enhance education. They have to learn how to work with educators. And parents have to trust that they're going to be good partners."
Nancy Meeks, Student Services Director for Snoqualmie Valley School District, admits that parents and schools don’t always see eye to eye.
“It doesn’t mean we as a district are doing something wrong,” she said. “It means there is a disagreement on how we are providing educational service, and we need to come to agreement.”
According to Meeks, more than 90 percent of student and parent complaints are resolved at the local building level. The district relies on a multi-step reporting system to address specific concerns such as bullying or harassment.
Issues of student education or safety are worked out, starting with teachers and staff. If staff can’t resolve concerns, parents move on to the principal, and if parents and the principal can’t come to an understanding, then Meeks’ office gets involved. If issues aren’t resolved there, then a third-party mediator may step in.
“They’re going to look at ‘Did you follow the law or not?’” Meeks said. “We spend time making sure our policies and procedures are clear, that we’re following them. I may not always agree with (state mediators), but I learn from them every time.”
Meeks said all sides need to be able to listen and understand the issues.
“There are cases where, no matter what happens with the best intentions of the school, it’s going to be contentious,” Meeks said. “Parents come being advocates for their kids—they want the best for the students. The challenge for schools is, we have constraints or issues we have to balance—legal issues, resources, schedules, caring for all the students. There are so many things that are out of the control of teachers. But they do a really good job of trying to problem-solve.”
Schools also emphasize preventing problems before they come up.
This year, the district is also focusing on safety with a Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools, or REMS, grant that looks at prevention and response at every school.
“There’s a lot of work that principals and teachers do on a daily basis to be proactive, to make sure that schools are safe,” Meeks said. From school surveys to staff training on diversity to curriculum on civility, bullying and cyber-harassment, “that’s where a lot of time and energy goes.”
These activities, and resources for parents and students, can be viewed at http://www.svsd410.org.
For Johnson, ombudsman officials helped her son select a trusted teacher as his advocate, someone to turn to for help. Yet, despite mediation, Johnson ultimately pulled her son from school because she didn't believe he was safe there. She blames unwelcome attention from administrators.
"The powers that be robbed him of his high school experience," Johnson said.
Today, her son is being taught by a tutor, paid for by the school district. Johnson said he hopes to be part of his graduating class in 2012.
Johnson herself is now is now a member of the Education Ombudsman's Parent Advisory Council. As an advisor, her duties include communicating with other parents, making suggestions on how schools could improve, and testifying to the legislature on education issues.
"My goal is to help other students avoid what my son went through," Johnson said. "Life is difficult enough for our children to navigate. They should not be subject to the deliberate mishandling (by) the very adults paid to act in their best interest."
Since the ombudsman's office is not an advocate for parents, but a mediator, Johnson advises parents who need help to remember that they'll need an advocate, too—someone they trust who can help them deal with school issues.
"Look for somebody who knows the ropes," Johnson said. Never meet with school officials alone, she added—"always bring a witness." Johnson said she is always willing to meet with parents and students as an advocate. "We parents and citizens must support each other, as we are responsible for building our own healthy communities."
Parents may be afraid to speak out when they have a problem with a school, but Johnson challenges inaction.
"We cannot be so frightened that we run and hide," she said.
• To contact the Office of the Education Ombudsman, call toll free to 1-(866) 297-2597 or visit http://www.governor.wa.gov/oeo/.
• Peggy Johnson can be reached for potential advocate questions at 425-999-2710.