Ombudsman Soothes Disputes

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 25, 2006 1 min read

Sometimes, Robin B. Shell deals with irate parents who think their children were unfairly punished. Other times, it’s a school staff member struggling to explain the complexities of special education regulations to frustrated parents.

Occasionally, she smooths over a custody matter before a child can enroll in school.

As the ombudsman for the Howard County, Md., public schools—one of a select number of neutral representatives hired by districts to investigate complaints and help parents, employees, and administrators resolve difficult issues—Ms. Shell has the job of working through such sticky issues.

A lawyer, Ms. Shell has worked for the 48,000-student suburban system since February 2005.

Joshua Kaufman, the chairman of the Howard County school board, said the district’s rapid growth and increasingly complex bureaucracy prompted board members to create the ombudsman position.

“We realized we needed someone to work directly with the board to be a neutral advocate for a fair process for parents, students, and staff,” he said.

Across the country, roughly 20 school districts are known to have ombudsmen, said Beverly E. Reeves, who is a co-chairwoman of the public school chapter of the United States Ombudsman Association. The association represents people working in that capacity in the public sector. The positions also are common in newspapers, which publish columns by their ombudsmen that address reader concerns.

“It is still a relatively unknown concept in public schools,” said Ms. Reeves, who is the ombudsman for the 82,000-student Austin Independent School District in Texas. “There are misconceptions about ombudsmen. When I first started, principals didn’t want me, and parents didn’t trust me because I was an employee of the school district.”

Ms. Shell, who is one of five public school ombudsmen in Maryland, said most of her calls from parents are complaints about school administrators.

“I’ve had parents yell at me and get mad at me,” Ms. Shell said. “But it’s all about the student, and in keeping that focus, I can dismiss the ones who get mad. They don’t understand that I am not an advocate for them.”

“She has played the exact role we wanted,” Mr. Kaufman said. “She doesn’t take sides.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week