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  Gilpin Case Reveals Flaws in Oversight of Schools
Improper Conduct by School Officials Isn't Carefully Recorded or Passed on

By Tiffany Lankes
Herald Tribune [Manatee County FL]
February 13, 2005

MANATEE COUNTY -- State and local policies aimed at protecting school employees from false accusations can also make it easier for people with records of improper conduct to continue working with kids.

In the last few years, a volleyball coach accused of sexually abusing students in Charlotte County ended up working with high schoolers here, and a bus driver who took three middle school students shopping for underwear left the district without reprimand.

Most recently, a complaint against Joseph Gilpin, who resigned as assistant principal at Haile Middle School last month, never made it into his personnel file and wasn't forwarded to the state.

These and similar incidents reveal a district beset by scattered recordkeeping, cursory investigations and the seemingly apathetic -- or highly cautious -- attitudes of administrators, all of which can result in complaints falling through the cracks.

Open to interpretation

The district requires all credible complaints to be forwarded from individual schools to the superintendent's office. But like in the Gilpin case, that doesn't always happen.

The decision on whether a complaint is credible is typically left up to individual principals, and there are no guidelines for how administrators should investigate those concerns. Some complaints may not even be written down.

School officials trust that administrators receiving complaints are keeping the best interests of their students in mind -- not just protecting teachers.

But some parents say the rules are ambiguous and make it possible for their complaints to be ignored.

"You have parents who have absolutely no power," said parent Deidre Olson, who reported concerns about the volleyball coach working with students at Lakewood Ranch High School. "In the end it looks like the schools are just looking out for themselves by quietly slipping some things aside."

Olson said she and other parents complained several times about the behavior of the coach. She said the school did not take her concerns seriously until she produced records showing that the coach turned in his teaching certification in 2002 amid allegations that he engaged in sexual misconduct with female students while teaching at Charlotte County High School. The district then banned him from all of the Manatee schools.

"We had our complaints but nobody would listen," Olson said. "It took a lot of investigation on my part."

Parent Ulonda Scott had a similar problem last year after a female bus driver took her daughter and two other girls shopping for bras instead of dropping them off at school. She says district administrators didn't want to discuss the issue after the driver resigned from her post. The driver left without any discipline from the district.

"They said there's not much they can do about it," Scott said. "It was like it was brushed under the rug."

More recently, three Haile Middle School students who reported that Gilpin inappropriately touched them or made lewd comments to them in November also said they weren't taken seriously. They said the sheriff's investigator looking into the case made them feel guilty for reporting the incident and talked them into changing their story.

Then, when parent John Dimeglio set up a meeting with a district official to talk about the incident, he barely had time to put on his visitor's badge before he was ushered out the door.

Dimeglio is convinced school officials didn't handle the complaint properly, but administrators told him since Gilpin resigned it is no longer an issue.

"They pretty much blew me off," Dimeglio said. "My biggest problem is it is an issue. What's to stop it from happening somewhere else?"

School officials say they're caught between addressing legitimate complaints and protecting employees from what could be false allegations.

Those concerns are complicated by a state law that requires school districts to exclude some derogatory information from employee personnel files.

But the law is vague on what exactly that includes. Manatee County school officials interpret it to mean anything that could be false and defame their employees.

"We want to make sure false information or information that really doesn't impact the employee operation isn't put out there," said Mark Barnebey, the School Board's attorney. "It depends on what the matter is related to and what it involves."

In some cases it's difficult to determine whether an educator acted inappropriately.

For example, while records show that parents complained when Gilpin put his hand in two girls' pockets looking for evidence they were smoking, district officials say it's not clear that Gilpin's intention went beyond looking for cigarettes. The same was true when a parent complained Gilpin patted her daughter on the butt with a book. Gilpin said he meant it as a friendly goodbye gesture, and a sheriff's deputy investigating the incident agreed.

The way Manatee County handles such complaints is common in school districts across the country as administrators struggle to balance their students' welfare with sheltering employees from false accusations, said Sue Ferguson, chairwoman of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement.

A big part of the issue is that it's not always clear what inappropriate conduct means, she said.

"If something like that gets reported there is always a sense of guilty-until-proven -innocent," Ferguson said. "We need to be very careful as citizens in what we do and say particularly regarding issues of sexual behavior. The slander involved in that is really quick to take hold."

System under review

School officials locally say the problems that surfaced with Gilpin -- the district had no record of a November complaint -- signal the need for improvements in the system.

One problem involves how employee records are kept. In addition to a main personnel file, the district keeps separate files on complaints and open investigations. Individual schools may also have yet more records on an employee, meaning there could be several files on someone floating around.

The multiple files not only make if hard for parents to check on an employee's background, but the background of school officials too.

Two weeks after Gilpin resigned from the Manatee schools, administrators are still trying to produce all of his district records.

In 2003, Bayshore High School assistant track and football coach, Robert Goff, resigned after a district investigation found he inappropriately touched three female students. But his personnel file includes no details of the allegations or investigation. Instead it's packed with glowing reviews, positive evaluations and letters of recommendation.

School officials say there are numerous other records on Goff that aren't in his personnel file, but that it would take at least another week before the district could produce the documents. The Herald-Tribune asked for the records on Feb. 2.

The district also reported Goff's case to the state for further review.

The state keeps a database of such complaints against Florida teachers so districts can check the backgrounds of job applicants.

But districts don't always take advantage of the information. Had Lakewood Ranch checked with the state, for example, the school would have learned about the volleyball coach before allowing him to work with students at the school.

But the state system isn't foolproof. State officials won't confirm whether a district employee is being investigated. When an investigation is closed the state will share information on the complaint, but it won't open its database to the public or district officials.

State officials say they can't share that information -- which includes ethics complaints and criminal histories -- because they have no way of blocking out Social Security numbers or cases still under review.

District officials say the problems that surfaced with Gilpin have prompted them to review their records system, and changes are in store.

The district plans to more strictly enforce a rule that school administrators forward all credible complaints to the superintendent's office so it can investigate. It's also looking at streamlining its employee records into fewer files.

"These more recent events have shown us that we need to be able to have a better system for getting the information to the top," said district spokeswoman Margi Nanney. "We need to know about everything that pertains to the health and welfare of our students."

 
 

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