By Heather Mullinix
The policy committee of the Cumberland County Board of Education is revisiting its complaint policy and procedures in an effort to make the process easier to understand and reduce the amount of time a complaint between teachers and parents is allowed to go unresolved. The committee is also looking to develop language that would offer protections to employees who make ethics complaints against superiors from retaliation.
While work has just begun on those two issues, the committee did agree to send two new policies governing insurance management and prevention and treatment of sports-related concussions and a change in the student discrimination, harassment and bullying/intimidation to the full board for consideration on first reading at Thursdays meeting.
Richard Janeway, chairman of the committee, said he was surprised to find there was no language protecting employees from retaliation if they reported ethical concerns.
"We need to encourage and protect all employees to report these things without fear," Janeway said.
Sandra Brewer, 3rd District representative, agreed, saying, "That's an awful feeling to know that something is wrong and not feel you can say something."
Janeway asked school administrators to research possible language to use and to recommend where to add it to the ethics policy for personnel. He also didn't believe complaints of retaliation needed to be handled by administration, but the ethics committee of the board.
Discussion of the proposed policy change is expected to continue to next month's meeting. Janeway said, "We don't want to rush. We want to have it right."
The complaint policy was reviewed following a parent request a few months ago, just as the policy appointments for the year expired.
Janeway explained the committee had previously revised the policy to narrow the time allowed for responding to complaints and to clarify if the policy referred to school days or calendar days.
The panel made several recommendations, including changing the number of days a parent has to make a formal complaint to 20 school days from the time a parent becomes aware of an incident.
The policy was also changed to require schools to provide a copy of the complaint policy to the complainant when the complaint is first made. Following a written complaint, the principal is to meet with the teacher and attempt to resolve the matter. The teacher has the right to representation at any meeting regarding a complaint.
If that meeting between teacher and principal does not resolve the issue for all parties, the teacher can request a conference with the complainant. If the matter is still unresolved after 15 school days, it would move to the next step in the process, which is a review by the principal or supervisor. Every attempt is to be made to complete this step within two school days.
If that attempt is unsuccessful at resolving the matter, the teacher or complaintant has one day to request the case record be sent to the director of the school. The director will have 15 school days to confer with all parties.
If the director is unable to resolve a complaint to the satisfaction of all parties within 10 school days, the teacher or complainant can request the record of the complaint, investigation and recommendations of the director be sent to the board and all parties. That record should be prepared and sent within two school days.
The board will have no more than 45 days to grant or deny a request for a board hearing.
Brewer said, "This step is where the problem is. The board shouldn't drag it out."
Janeway also noted the language of "may" grant or deny a request was a problem.
"It doesn't say we're required. The board can just ignore. Any board member can bring it up, but if you let things wait, they fester. It's best to address it sooner."
He recommended changing the policy to state the board "shall" review complaints and "shall" grant or deny a request for a board hearing.
Because of the number of changes made, Janeway wanted to have the policy reviewed by BOE attorney Earl Patton and the Tennessee School Boards Association to review. He noted there were numerous footnotes denoting state and federal law citations that were not included in the policy, and that needed to be resolved. The committee will discuss the policy again next month.
TSBA has recommended changes to the student discrimination/harassment and bullying intimidation policy have a section added for retaliation and false accusations. Those who retaliate against people who report any of the acts covered by the policy will face appropriate remedial action, to be determined by the administrator. Those making false accusations would also face disciplinary action up to and including suspension and expulsion.
TSBA has recommended a insurance management policy that includes the types of insurance coverages the school system should carry, board approval of all insurance carriers for group health plans and annuities. Another new policy recommended is the prevention and treatment of sports-related concussions. Athletic directors and coaches, employed or volunteer, will be required to complete annual training. Also, any student athlete who shows signs, symptoms or behaviors consistent with a concussion during an athletic activity or competition shall be immediately removed for an evaluation by a licensed healthcare professional, if available, or by the coach or other designated individual. The athlete will need written clearance from a licensed health care provided for full or graduated return to activities.
The Cumberland County Board of Education will meet Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Central Office, on 4th St., and consider first reading of these policies.