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Office ensures schools, rules mix

The district's Office of Professional Standards investigates complaints, offering a watchful eye and a helping hand.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


LARGO -- The hardest part of the job is not interviewing students about sensitive topics or being called the "gestapo" or having to keep some distance from other colleagues.

The hardest part is, over and over, seeing good people make bad decisions.

At the Pinellas County School District, a four-person staff makes up the Office of Professional Standards. Staffers investigate complaints against the district's 17,000 employees and 25,000 volunteers -- anything from excessive force to theft to inappropriate relationships with students.

Most of the time, they maintain relative anonymity as they conduct nearly 1,600 investigations each year. Their work is only thrust into the spotlight when a high-profile discipline case becomes public, as happened earlier this month when the district released a report detailing the conduct of two top transportation officials.

"It's not a feeling of celebration when we close cases," said Michael Bessette, who handled the transportation case. "This affects people's lives."

Bessette and his colleagues took different paths to arrive at a small office in the district's administration building in Largo.

Administrator Jim Barker was hired in Pinellas in 1972 and has worked at several schools, including serving as principal at Gulf Beaches Elementary School and Palm Harbor Middle School. Barker, 55, earns $83,944 annually.

Bessette, also an administrator, has spent his career in Pinellas schools, mostly working with severely emotionally disturbed students. Bessette, 48, was principal at Calvin Hunsinger School and Kennedy Middle School. He earns $75,673 annually.

Bob Franz, 58, is a campus police investigator who retired from the New York Police Department as supervisor of internal affairs. Franz, who earns $42,345, has taught Barker and Bessette police techniques.

Lisa Jones, 41, is an administrative investigator, a position that was created about a year ago because of the department's caseload. Jones was a Pinellas Park police victim's assistance coordinator and a boot camp social worker with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. She earns $33,919.

The Office of Professional Standards used to be part of the personnel department, but in 1993 became independent. Many urban school districts in Florida, including Hillsborough, have similar departments to investigate employee misconduct.

Barker's team does not look for business. They take complaints from administrators, students, employees, volunteers and, increasingly, parents. They notice a jump in complaints during the full moon and the days before spring and winter break.

They investigate violations of district policy, but local law enforcement agencies handle criminal cases. OPS, as the department is called, also helps the personnel department with background checks of new employees.

OPS investigators do not have subpoena power. As part of their contracts, employees are required to cooperate with investigations -- though Barker and Bessette find many reluctant to rat out their colleagues.

For students, it can be even harder to talk.

"I felt it put students sometimes in a very awkward position, having to talk about things that were uncomfortable or especially talking about their own teachers, whom they should respect," said Martha O'Howell, a six-year OPS investigator who now heads the district's personnel department.

Most complaints do not end in newspaper headlines or findings of wrongdoing. In fact, in many cases, employees quit their jobs rather than face complete investigations or punishment by the School Board.

Of the nearly 1,600 cases last year, 274 involved misconduct and 196 involved misuse of corporal punishment or inappropriate discipline. Other typical cases involved disparaging remarks about students, failing to correct performance flaws and failing to comply with policy.

The number of cases has remained fairly steady, though Barker said the district is dealing with an increasing number of employees with mental health issues. He said employees who need help with addictions or in their personal lives are referred to the district's assistance program.

"I found it terribly difficult to deal with people who had done something really stupid but weren't bad people and just were devastated," said Nancy Zambito, a director of operations who worked in OPS five years. "They knew what they had done was really wrong. You try to help them."

Many cases are judgment calls.

This week, the School Board will have to consider whether to suspend a high school teacher for three days without pay for grabbing a disruptive student by the throat. Investigators could have moved to fire the teacher, but they decided three days off was enough. Superintendent Howard Hinesley usually defers to the investigator's judgment.

Most investigations are complete in days, though recent months have brought more complicated cases. The transportation case required Bessette to spend weeks reading hundreds of e-mail messages from a former employee's computer.

What's the reward in this kind of work? Investigators say they work toward a common goal: making schools safer places for kids. Occasionally, they even get thank-you notes.

"It doesn't happen often, but it happens sometimes," Bessette said.

Jade Moore, executive director of the teachers union, doesn't always agree with OPS' findings. But he said the district's investigators always are fair.

"They don't show favoritism. They never overreact. They don't seem to have their own prejudices," Moore said. "Sometimes I think they're too lenient and sometimes I think they are too severe. That's exactly as it should be."

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