116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Iowa City schools’ new ombudsperson will be a “trusted navigator” for students, families and staff to advocate for fair treatment and equitable processes.
Janet Abejo-Parker is creating the role of ombudsperson for the Iowa City Community School District. She is spending her first 90 days setting expectations for the office of ombudsperson and promoting awareness and understanding about how and when she can help.
“If people have gotten the run around or just don’t know what to do, that stops when they reach me,” Abejo-Parker said. “We will sit down, I’ll give you all the resources I could possibly find and I hope to answer all your questions.”
Last year, the Iowa City school board prioritized creating an ombudsperson position in the district as part of its nine administrative action steps toward diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We've seen some of our students gravitate toward social media to tell stories about their experience that hasn't been positive in our district,” Interim Superintendent Matt Degner said an in interview with The Gazette last year.
“An ombudsman position would be an advocate (for students) and work with students to try to rectify their experience.”
While some ombudsperson positions are officials appointed to investigate complaints, Abejo-Parker’s role will be an unofficial resource. The state of Iowa has an Office of Ombudsman for residents to file a complaint with a state or local government agency, for example.
The University of Iowa also has an ombudsperson to handle questions from staff, faculty and students about work problems, conflicts over grades or other academic issues and student employment, among other things.
Abejo-Parker previously worked at the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission as a senior investigator and also served as interim executive director.
It was during her time at the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission when she learned about ombudsperson positions and the role became a “long-term goal” for her.
As an ombudsperson for a K-12 school district, Abejo-Parker will get to help with mediation, conflict resolution and work with youth, she said.
“Particularly people will usually come to me if there is a situation where there is a power imbalance, concern for confidentiality or fear of retaliation,” Abejo-Parker said.
Her 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.
“My main goal is I hope people can come to me, and after leaving my office they will feel like they have options and a path forward,” she said.
This is a “brave” move for the district, Abejo-Parker said.
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 said.
Abejo-Parker hopes eventually to help prevent civil rights injustice from happening in the first place through the office, in part by providing feedback and recommendations to the school district to address systemic issues and make a positive change.
Iowa City schools is one of the few K-12 schools in the country with an ombudsperson, said J.P. Claussen, a school board member.
“I believe Janet is going to do a good job at finding solutions that work for everyone,” Claussen said during a school board meeting earlier this month. “She’s really establishing the role to be sustainable.”
School board member Janet Godwin also said she is “a fan” of Abejo-Parker and already is impressed with her work.
“She’s got our support,” Godwin said.
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