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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Jones case a reminder of the need for HR staff

This post was first published on my original site Sept. 12, 2017

Everyone who works at a newspaper like I once did is familiar with an unfortunate strategy in PR: corporations and governments will release bad news at 4 p.m. on a Friday. It sure looks like someone at our school district is familiar with this strategy. At 3:18 Friday, an email from the Superintendent via infinitecampus hit my mailbox, directing me to this letter, informing families that a former teacher has been accused of sexually assaulting a student. No one has been charged with a crime.

I could fill a long blog post with the questions this letter raises, so I'm sticking to the bigger, less speculative ones here.

Before I dive in, in case you don't wade through this entire post, if you're disturbed by the timing of that notification - several months after the teacher resigned -- or the idea that a teacher would ever have a student alone with him long enough for an assault to occur ... Tuesday is an excellent time to go to the Shorewood School Board meeting to tell the board and Superintendent your concerns. Turns out, it relates pretty directly to a big item on the agenda: Personnel.

If you don't speak School Board jargon, "DISTRICT OPERATIONS: A. Review of Monitoring for Operational Expectation -4 (Personnel Administration) Presenter: Patrick Miller"

means that Business Office Manager Patrick Miller will review whether over the last year the district has met expectations laid out by the school board for how it will manage its employees. As of this writing, there wasn't a preview yet of the report - check back because those items are often added prior to the meeting.

If you'd like to speak to district leadership, there are two opportunities for public comment -- one at the beginning and one at the end. Board members will once in a while answer a question posed to them, but most of the time will respond to comments with a "thank you."

If you'd like an answer to your concerns and a record of the response, your best bet is to contact the board directly in writing. Not answering questions or otherwise discussing unpleasantness in a public forum that is being recorded protects the board and Superintendent from accidentally saying something they weren't supposed to say, and from publicly disagreeing with each other (it's in their policy to have a single voice) or from being publicly critical of the administration (also against their own rules). With a matter as sensitive as this, I would expect they will say very little out of fear of compromising the rights of the accused and the confidentiality of the student. That said, I have seen them respond when a big crowd shows up to show their displeasure.

Back to the unpleasantness: The accused teacher, Matt Jones, taught for five years in Shorewood as a Special Education teacher, which to me is alarming since he'd be working with particularly vulnerable students. The letter didn't note that he was Boys Assistant Basketball Coach. Matt Jones' father Phil Jones was basketball coach for SHS for six years. The letter also left out that Matt Jones served for a time as Assistant Principal during the 2013-2014 school year after the passing of SIS principal Mark Harris prompted administrative shifts across the district. Jones is quoted in a story in Shorewood Ripples following Harris' death, saying he first came to work in Shorewood to work with Harris and with SIS Principal Matt Joynt.

So, Matt Jones was deeply connected to Shorewood School District leadership. Which made the revelation via TV news Friday night that Jones' is accused to not only assaulting a student but also a former staff member, extra disturbing. According to the WISN story, once the staff member came forward, Jones was allowed to resign. It was after his resignation that the student came forward.

I don't know to what degree the board was briefed on the situation -- they approve every resignation and hiring of certified staff. The did approve the resignation without comment, not wishing him well as they will sometimes do with longtime staff, and his resignation letter was not a part of the agenda packet, as it is frequently with departing teachers.

We don't know whether the fellow staff member's claim of assault was deemed "substantiated," but if it was, the district's sexual harassment policy appears to allow not just for an employee's resignation but a termination. I would assume the allegations and the district's investigation are confidential to protect both Mr. Jones and the accuser, so there's no way to know.

If these accusations are true, then parents and other staff have reason to be very angry that a sexual predator was allowed to operate in the high school. However, we don't know if the accusations are true. It may also be that neither accuser wanted the district to talk about the accusations for fear that they would be identifiable as the ones who were allegedly assaulted. That's the only good reason I can think of for the delay in notifying families that a prominent teacher and coach, a onetime administrator, was under investigation for very serious misconduct.

Here's what I can say for sure, and I've said it before: the district needs a professional human resources manager. HR duties today rest with the business office, which has plenty of other matters to tend to. This case is Exhibit A in the case for dedicated HR staff -- at least one full-time person. In my prior blog on this issue, I pointed out that an HR manager position could end up saving the district money that person reduced turnover. The Jones case raises another justification for investing in professional HR: litigation. I'm sure the district is insured to a certain degree against civil lawsuits by families and staff, but as with any insurance, using it means the price goes up. There's also the risk that whether the charges are true or not, our reputation as a district is going to suffer, and that could in turn make recruitment more difficult and drive away teachers who no longer feel safe. An independent HR office might also help the district conduct investigations in a way that instills confidence. In cases involving administrators -- or former administrators like Mr. Jones -- it could help ensure that there isn't even an appearance of favoring current or former administrators or friends of administrators.

District leadership should consider that even if these allegations are totally false, there are lessons to be learned, and it's worth paying closer attention to personnel management, and thinking about how the board measures success. Right now board's operating expectations, as I noted before, are weirdly low. If you ask me, 100% of our staff should answer that they work "in a school/environment that allows them to work in an environment of professional support and courtesy." The current 70% is a pretty low bar.

The policy also only calls for the administration to investigate and properly handle complaints of harassment. It doesn't say anything about looking at patterns of complaints or proactively preventing harassment. For instance, the way I'm reading the policy, if one department was a very hostile work environment where multiple complaints originated, as long as complaints were investigated (and at least 7 out of 10 employees across the district said they were working in an environment of "professional support and courtesy") the Superintendent would be deemed to have met expectations.

The personnel policy sets an expectation that 95% of district employees return each year, which is good -- we want as low a turnover rate as possible. But there's nothing that calls for preventing or investigating high turnover in specific departments or schools. I went through a few years' School Board agendas and counted up resignations. The district has lost five Special Education teachers in the last two years since late August 2015, including Matt Jones. That's not counting Special Education aides, whose resignations wouldn't have to be approved by the board. By comparison, SIS has only had three teacher resignations over the same period -- Lake Bluff only two. Atwater lost four, but I'm double counting one, because one of the Special Education teachers was at Atwater. The business office has also suffered a lot of turnover -- four staff members who resigned over the last two years, something our auditors noted hurt our ability to follow recommended accounting policy.

I don't know if the spikes in turnover are really patterns due to anything negative, but if I were a board member, I sure would ask. Shouldn't the administration look in to any patterns like this, and address them by conducting exit interviews and holding managers accountable for turnover?

As I noted in talking about Personnel management before, the district's success rests to heavily on recruiting and retaining the best people, there is truly no such thing as too much focus on our faculty and staff, because without them, we can't deliver the best education to our kids.

I hope the Jones case, however it resolves, makes our district leadership look hard at ways to serve both it employees and its students, starting with safety and protection from abuse.

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