Board updates comment policy

School system broadens scope of anonymous calls, letters to be investigated

July 31, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

In an effort to stem concerns about how anonymous calls and correspondence are handled, Carroll County school board members have approved a policy that ends the practice of routinely discarding such communications.

The changes, made Wednesday night at a school board meeting, come after months of tweaking the policy's language in attempts to balance the benefits of hearing from the public against worries that staff members could be unfairly targeted and investigated.

The policy, renamed from "anonymous communications" to "open communications," expands the criteria under which such correspondence is to be more thoroughly vetted and prescribes steps for dealing with it.

The new policy broadens the scope of anonymous correspondence that is to be more closely evaluated.

The system's decade-old policy had been to investigate only those anonymous calls, letters and e-mails that contained references to illegal activity by staff or to child abuse, such as neglect and sexual or physical abuse. All other unsigned correspondence - including complaints about teachers or principals - was thrown out, and unidentified callers were disconnected.

During the past couple of years, school administrators have grappled with how to handle anonymous communications that didn't fall into the old policy's two categories - abuse of a student or illegal activity by staff - but seemed to warrant investigation, said Steve Guthrie, assistant superintendent of administration.

Under the new policy, anonymous communications that deal in general terms with mistreatment of a student at school or home - which might not necessarily involve physical harm - in addition to those regarding child abuse or other illegal activity, would be forwarded to the superintendent's office for an investigation and possible follow-up.

When the board met last month, several members, including Thomas G. Hiltz, expressed reservations about having a policy that would allow any correspondence to be discarded outright and pressed for changes that would narrow or eliminate that possibility.

"This is a big step in the direction that the board has been promoting, and that is open communications," said Hiltz, who has served on the board since 2000. "We want people to feel like they can communicate their concerns freely."

Hiltz said the old policy had the effect of discouraging anonymous communications, a way in which some people might choose to express legitimate concerns out of fear of retaliation.

In addition to expanding its scope, the new policy outlines specific steps that are to be taken when staffers encounter unsigned correspondence or unidentified calls.

Staff members must share all correspondence, signed and unsigned, that identifies "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.

Anonymous calls, letters or e-mails that allege mistreatment or abuse of a student or illegal activity by staff members are to be sent to Superintendent Charles I. Ecker's office to be evaluated for possible action.

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