Published Online: March 4, 1998

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An administrator facing the news media over a parent's complaint often winds up caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place: violate confidentiality laws or let the parent's version of events go unchallenged.

Officials in the Wake County, N.C., schools pictured just this dilemma as they launched a campaign aimed at improving discipline three years ago. What if, they asked, parents upset over a student's suspension or expulsion portray the action as unfair and unwarranted? And what if, thanks to a principal's "no comment," the other side of the story ends up untold?

Jim Surratt, the superintendent of the Raleigh-based district, came up with the idea of parental waiver forms that give administrators permission to discuss a student's record with the news media.

"It's so simple," said Stella Shelton, the communications director for the 89,500-student district. "A signed consent is a rock-solid defense against violating confidentiality laws." The federal law that keeps administrators from revealing the contents of student records also gives parents the right to release the information.

The district launched its "zero tolerance" discipline campaign with a press conference that included waiver forms reporters or school officials could give to parents. The waiver process works like this: School officials or reporters ask parents who have complained to the news media about a school-related issue to sign a waiver. If the parents agree, an official can discuss the case with reporters. If not, the official tells reporters that the parents refused to sign.

In practice, the waiver has most often worked to help reporters weed out complaints that don't hold water, say Mr. Surratt, Ms. Shelton, and Ann Majestic, a lawyer for the Wake County school board. They described the program in an article in the February issue of The American School Board Journal.

When parents refuse to sign a waiver, they say, it sends a warning signal to reporters, who are often frustrated by school officials' silence.

Administrators have spoken to reporters under a waiver only three times. In the latest incident, a parent claimed a middle school teacher had used a racial slur. But the child reporting that to his father contradicted his own statement in an interview with school investigators--a fact officials felt free to reveal with the waiver in hand.

In the end, no story appeared.

More information is available from Stella Shelton, Wake County Public Schools, P.O. Box 28041, Raleigh, NC 27611-8041; e-mail SShel1234@aol.com.

--BESS KELLERbkeller@epe.org

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