Ombudsman eager to provide neutrality

New position offers fairness in disputes involving schools

August 28, 2005|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

As the Howard County school system's first ombudsman, Robin Shell wants parents to know they can tell her their problems and ask her for help. But she is not on their side.

"I'm not here to uphold either side," Shell said. "I'm here to make sure that the process is fair and that [parents] understand what the process is."

It is a job description that has worked well during Shell's first eight months on the job, said Courtney Watson, county school board chairman.

"We set up the ombudsman position specifically to provide an advocate for fairness," Watson said. "Just having a neutral party to talk to and to hear the concerns has been a huge benefit to the parents that have contacted Robin."

Shell, 43, lives in Glenn Dale in Prince George's County with her husband and five children.

She was hired in January to serve as a liaison between the community and the school system and earns $48,000 annually. She works in the Board of Education building three days a week and reports directly to the school board.

She has served as an ombudsman before, most recently for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. She is a lawyer and a volunteer mediator.

She said when she arrived for her first day of work with the school system, there were two messages on her desk.

"My services were needed the very first day," she said.

During her tenure, Shell said, she has been involved in 51 cases. Numerous other calls have been handled with simple answers or referrals.

A few examples:

She has met with parents and the director of special education about the discontinuation of special-education services for homeschooled students.

She talked with the curriculum office when a parent raised concerns about an assignment that asked for confidential information.

She met with the administrative director to assist a parent whose child was denied entry into the Gifted and Talented Program.

One issue that has come up repeatedly is bullying, Shell said. Male and female students have been in conflicts involving nonphysical teasing or shunning, as well as in physical confrontations.

Shell brought the issue to the attention of school system staff members who had recognized there was a problem. A task force has been formed to look at bullying and make recommendations to the Board of Education.

Other areas that Shell has dealt with include resolving requirements in time for graduation, suspensions, plans for students with special-education needs, transportation and accusations of cheating.

Watson said the board is receiving information about Shell's cases and plans to identify trends.

"Soon we should be able to see if there are any areas we need to focus on," Watson said.

Many more calls are situations that are specific to the family, Shell said.

The first step, she said, is often a lengthy conversation so she can understand the problem.

She also said, "I allow them to vent. ... There's a lot of emotion because the person involved is very dear."

The next step is to make sure the caller - usually a parent - understands the policies and procedures that are in place and to find out what they have done up to that point.

Many times, parents contact her because they are in the process of dealing with an issue or they have gone through the process and are not satisfied, Shell said. "They don't understand why it's happening the way it is."

If necessary, Shell will facilitate conversations with staff members or sit in on meetings between staff and parents. She will also let parents know what their options are if they have exhausted the school system's procedures.

"I want to empower people to resolve their own conflicts," she said, because when that happens, people are more likely to buy into the solution.

Another part of Shell's job is to recommend policy changes.

So far, she has helped to clarify the suspension policy and the absentee policy, she said.

Part of her job, she said, "is to demystify the process as much as I can so people don't feel intimidated by it, because it is meant for their assistance."

Parents are "very pleased that the school system has what they perceive to be an unbiased person to go to," Watson said.

"She is 100 percent neutral, and that's hard to achieve, but she has experience as an ombudsman and she came into the job really understanding what her job is," she said.

Shell said she doesn't want people to view her as the person who fixes everything.

She said, "You are your child's best advocate."

Parents who need the ombudsman's services can call Robin Shell at 410-313-6850.

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