Amicable Solutions: Ombudsmen Make The System Work

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The situations are all too familiar: A student and teacher do not get along and the student's parents ask school officials to assign the child to a new classroom; a high-school student without the proper prerequisite course is turned away from a class for which the student thinks he or she is qualified; or, the transportation schedule has been modified and the bus driver is unwilling to stop at a corner, thereby saving a child an apparently unnecessary five-block walk.

What links these cases are their outcomes. None is resolved satisfactorily, and angry and exasperated parents and students conclude that the school system is insensitive to individual needs.

Obviously, administrators and teachers should be able to deal with such problems in ways that lead to amicable solutions. Parents and students need not nor should not have all their requests granted. But they should have a chance to present their gripes, and they are entitled to a reasonable explanation when compliance is impossible. To resolve differences, it may be appropriate to bring together the various parties to provide a basis for a fresh start, as free as possible of the weighty baggage that thwarted progress the last time around.

One way to encourage families to remain allied with the public schools is to reduce the seemingly intractable nature and frustrations of the system. Layer upon layer of bureaucracy, buttressed by tomes of rules and regulations, sometimes make parents seeking information feel like Dorothy in the Land of Oz. Even where access is encouraged, parents may remain intimidated by authority, hesitant and unsure in their approach to administrators and teachers.

If school-board members had the time and were always willing to strive to represent the interests of their fellow citizens, these impasses might be avoided. But school-board members often seem to be spokesmen for the superintendent instead of for the public, which is fine with certain superintendents, who sweep enough problems under the rug to choke a Hoover.

Although the schools have no responsibility to give assertiveness training to parents, they could take steps to make it easier for parents to be heard. The Swedish Parliament did it for their countrymen in the early 19th century by providing an ombudsman to help lone individuals gain redress from government.

This is an idea that every school system in the country ought to consider. Ombudsmen have been used by various governmental bodies in the United States and even by some universities, beginning in the 1960's. But of the thousands of school systems in this country, no more than a few dozen employ ombudsmen.

One of these districts is Ann Arbor, Mich., where Robert L. Potts has held the position since 1970, making him one of the nation's first public-school ombudsmen and probably the most experienced. Mr. Potts believes that communications problems are inherent in bureaucracies and that the views of parents and students are likely to get chewed up in the machinery of a school system unless there is an ombudsman to intervene.

His job was established by the school board, and he reports directly to the superintendent without any intermediaries to blunt his role. While the superintendent could recommend the dismissal of the ombudsman, only the school board could actually take such action.

The largest number of cases brought to Mr. Potts's attention involve student discipline, and one of his main tasks is to determine whether students were penalized justly. He finds that the ombudsman is pivotal in helping minority members win assurance of equitable treatment.

One case not long ago involved a black student on the football team whose parent complained to Mr. Potts that the athlete was not getting all of the playing time that he deserved because the coach allegedly was discriminating against him. Mr. Potts brought together the principal, the coach, the parent, and the student. The outcome of the conversation was that the coach decided to give the student more playing time.

This is the stuff of which successful schools are made, and any school system could benefit from a process that resolves differences and alleviates misunderstandings. Almost every family with a child in school has at one time or another felt the need for an intermediary--someone to step in when problems between teachers and students cannot be reconciled, when rules are administered unfairly, when parents believe they cannot get a sympathetic ear.

There is some disagreement over whether an ombudsman should be an impartial mediator or an advocate. Either role has merit, though advocacy is probably what parents crave most.

Above all, ombudsmen must be independent, free from the pressure of those who would weaken their effectiveness and threaten their jobs. This means that an ombudsman probably ought to serve under a contract that cannot be abrogated except under special circumstances. He or she should be accountable only to the school board, the body that directly represents the public. He or she should have direct access to the superintendent and all other personnel in the system. It is best if the ombudsman has the respect of both educators and the public, as well as familiarity with the schools.

Is this an impossible dream, the ramblings of an educational Quixote? I do not think so. True, the various constituencies that hold power in schools--teachers, principals, superintendents, and school-board members--are not eager to have outsiders poking into their affairs.

But the ombudsman might win the trust of these groups if he or she is not alien to the schools. An appropriate choice for ombudsman, for example, might be a veteran of the teaching staff, a man or woman of impeccable educational credentials, whom parents would be delighted to have teach their children.

Rather than teaching, this person would spend a few years out of the classroom, helping make the system work and giving students and parents a bigger stake in what is supposed to belong to them in the first place.

Vol. 01, Issue 25, Page 24

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