Comment policy is reassessed

School system would respond to more anonymous correspondence under plan

Allegations of mistreatment would be investigated

June 19, 2005|By Gina Davis

Carroll County school employees would no longer routinely discard anonymous communications under proposed changes that attempt to balance the benefits of hearing from the public against worries that staff members could be unfairly targeted and investigated.

The district's decade-old policy is to investigate only those anonymous calls, letters and e-mails that contain references to illegal activity by staff or child abuse, such as neglect and sexual or physical abuse. All other unsigned correspondence are thrown out, and unidentified callers are disconnected.

The proposed changes, discussed at last week's school board meeting, are being considered because administrators have grappled in recent years with what to do with anonymous communications that do not fall into either of those two categories and yet seem to warrant an investigation.

School officials would add a third category of anonymous communications -- those alleging mistreatment of a student -- that must be reviewed. Correspondence and calls that fall into any of these three categories would be sent to the superintendent, Charles I. Ecker.

"Gone is the direction to discard written communications and to disconnect calls that are not identified with ownership," said Stephen Guthrie, the district's assistant superintendent of administration. "Even if it's an anonymous communication, we will try to provide appropriate follow-up."

In an effort to underscore their desire to hear all concerns the public may have about issues in the school system, school officials would change the policy's name from "anonymous communications" to "open communications."

"We wanted to make sure we had a policy that encourages communication rather than a policy that ... [suggests] we don't want to hear from you unless you give us your name," school board member Thomas G. Hiltz said in an interview last week. "It's more important for us to understand your concerns."

In addition, the proposed changes would implement steps to be taken when staffers encounter unsigned correspondence or unidentified calls.

Under the proposal, staff members would be required to share correspondence "identifying specific concerns or issues within the school system" with their immediate supervisor (or the supervisor of the department or school identified in the correspondence). The complaint must then be considered for appropriate action and follow-up.

"We can't follow up with an anonymous complainer, but we will try to take appropriate steps" to address the concerns identified, Guthrie said.

In part, the proposed changes -- which the board will vote on at its July 27 meeting -- aim to align the policy with what is generally done informally, Guthrie said.

While the current policy does not designate who will investigate anonymous communications, the practice has been to direct correspondence regarding child abuse to the student services office, and those regarding illegal activity by staff have been sent to the human resources department.

At last month's school board meeting, when Guthrie initially presented proposed changes to the policy, several members expressed reservations about allowing any correspondence to be discarded outright.

"I think there's a tendency to say [that] if the person can't put a name on it then I'm not going to pay attention to it, but that's wrong," Hiltz said. "We need to pay attention to the content" and not who wrote the letter or made the call.

Hiltz said he does not worry that broadening the policy would leave school officials besieged by anonymous complaints.

"If this policy goes into effect, it means an anonymous communication will be read, someone will determine if it's a valid issue, and then an appropriate response will be made," he said. "It does not mean there's [automatically] an investigation."

Hiltz said it is time to "move away from the notion that there's some big difference between anonymous communications and communications with people's name on it" and instead focus on the issues being raised.

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