Should families have the option of bringing in an ombudsman or special advocate to shepherd them through disciplinary proceedings in the Madison School District?
School Board president Ed Hughes says no, especially given the district's new discipline code aimed at keeping kids who break the rules in school and learning from their mistakes. The new policy was adopted by the Madison School Board last week and will go into effect next school year.
“Certainly we need to have a person available to answer questions and provide some clarity for families who find themselves caught up in the discipline process,” Hughes said Friday. “I don’t know that that would be a full-time position. I hope it wouldn’t be. I’m thinking we’ll have significantly fewer people enmeshed in that system than we have had recently.”
Jeff Spitzer-Resnick urged the school board to create such an ombudsman position during public comment Monday on the new discipline code.
Spitzer-Resnick was the attorney who represented an East High School honors student whose family went public with her case in concern over a lengthy expulsion that had been recommended for her involvement in an alcohol incident. The school board ended up expelling the girl, but allowed her immediate return to school, ending nearly six weeks of being out of class.
Spitzer-Resnick said the case showed him that families need help navigating the discipline system.
“There’s no question in my mind that parents and students need an ally inside the schools. I strongly recommend you make an ombudsman available to them,” he told school board members.
Students and families already have an ally in school officials, Hughes said.
“Everyone engaged in the process views themselves as working for students and families," Hughes said. "I don’t see it as an adversarial process.”
Spitzer-Resnick’s clients were not the first family to object to a proposed expulsion, Hughes acknowledged.
“It’s certainly not unusual for families to want their children back in school as soon as possible. But we can have a disagreement about what is best for a kid, or how to apply the policy, without being adversaries,” he said.
Spitzer-Resnick represented his client in a proceeding before a hearing officer where his client and her mother testified, but those parties were not allowed in to the deliberations by the school board.
The school district’s current zero tolerance on some offenses – like bringing alcohol to school and giving some to another student – has required that expulsion be recommended to the school board in some cases, said Hughes.
But the recommendations “were not determinative for the board,” he said. “We knew what the recommendations were and we did what we thought was best.”
Alterations to recommended expulsions were not uncommon, according to one report, with two of eight recommended expulsions this school year being reversed and three modified.
Hughes, who is an attorney, said he doesn’t think legal representation in most expulsion cases is needed or useful.
“From my experience, in the vast majority of cases, the involvement of a lawyer would not have impacted the outcome or been beneficial to the process,” he said.
It didn’t impact the outcome in the case that made headlines last week, Hughes said. But the public attention generated by the case was instructive, he said.
“The case certainly did illustrate the extent to which parents can feel uncomfortable with the process or feel the district isn’t responsive to their concerns. We need to make sure that is not the case going forward,” Hughes said.