116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — In the first year of launching the Iowa City Community School District’s ombudsperson office, Janet Abejo-Parker has been an advocate for fair treatment and equitable processes for students, staff and families with concerns.
Abejo-Parker said it’s a “highly rewarding role,” giving her the chance to connect with students and the community in a positive and collaborative way. During a school board meeting earlier this week, Abejo-Parker presented data from the 2021-22 school year.
“It can be a very difficult and significant thing to reach out for assistance or help, especially to a brand-new position, resource and office,” Abejo-Parker said, expressing appreciation and gratitude “for those who took a chance.”
Abejo-Parker said she is working to build trust and relationships by establishing the integrity and credibility of the office. In the first year of the program, Abejo-Parker had 100 people approach her with 138 topics of concern.
The majority of contacts were with employees in the Iowa City Community School District; 36 percent of contacts were by a students’ parent or guardian and 3 percent were students themselves. People initially reached out to the ombuds office primarily by email, followed by phone and in-person visits.
- Administrative issues such as decisions of administrators and interpretation or application of rules and quality of services;
- Constituent relationships such as communication, enrollment or transfers, or discipline;
- Discrimination and harassment or bullying;
- Evaluative relationships such as supervisor effectiveness, discipline and performance reviews;
- Peer and colleague relationships such as respect and treatment;
- And career development such as involuntary change of assignment or career development, coaching and mentoring.
Result of communication with the ombuds office was conflict resolution, informal mediation, information acquired needed to address the concern, and clarification on district policy and practices.
Following a visit to the ombuds office, there is an opportunity to provide feedback through a survey. One of the survey questions was: “If you had not contacted the ombuds for assistance what might have happened instead?” Responses included “remain unsatisfied,” “address directly through human resources,” “file a lawsuit or formal complaint or leave the district.”
“I hope our numbers don’t grow a lot. I hope a lot of people don’t have a concern for an ombuds, but what would have happened if they didn’t contact the office are all really bad things we don’t want to happen,” school board member J.P. Claussen said.
“We’ve got a place for folks to be heard, but you’re not just there for people to feel listened to. You’re there helping them navigating their concern and solve a problem,” Claussen said.
School board president Ruthina Malone said feedback shows “that people are feeling heard and validated.”
“That’s one of the most important aspects of this role,” Malone said. “We want our people — students, parents or guardians, and employees — to feel support as they work through any issue they bring to your office.”
The Iowa City school board prioritized creating an ombudsperson position in the district a couple years ago as part of its nine administrative action steps toward diversity, equity and inclusion. Iowa City schools is one of the few K-12 schools in the country with an ombudsperson.
An ombudsperson is independent from the organization for which they work, neutral and impartial, confidential and informal, which can be less intimidating than filing a formal complaint,
Abejo-Parker’s office is 100 percent confidential, and she will provide people with whatever resources in the school district or community she can find for them and help them evaluate their options.
Abejo-Parker said the office also fits in to a new school improvement plan the district implemented this year. The plan — called Marzano High Reliability Schools — is a long-term strategic planning guide for schools and districts to help improve student achievement.
Her office fits in to the high reliability schools framework by providing a safe, collaborative culture, Abejo-Parker said.
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