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School district inquiry says allegations of bullying by assistant principal not founded

BROOKSVILLE — Allegations that Explorer K-8 assistant principal Vivian Sweeney bullied or intimidated teachers to influence her son's grades and disciplinary record are unfounded, according to a school district investigation released Thursday.

There is no evidence that Sweeney, the wife of School Board member John Sweeney, "systematically and chronically inflicted physical hurt or psychological distress" on teachers, concluded Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services.

But Sweeney "blurred lines" between her roles as a parent and as an administrator at her son's school, Martin wrote in a summary report.

Sweeney, who denied the allegations, will not be disciplined, but the case has prompted Martin to recommend new protocols to separate the roles of parent and administrator.

Four teachers at Explorer's Quest Academy for the Gifted — Katherine Batchelor, Dale Travis, Kristine Brown and Leanne Blackwell — filed complaints under the district's bullying and harassment policy last month against Sweeney.

The Sweeneys' son is an eighth-grader in the Quest Academy for the Gifted program. According to their complaints, they felt pressured by Sweeney to give her son special treatment.

Travis said the boy bragged in class that his mother "ran the school" and that his parents would appeal his write-ups for behavior issues. That prompted other students to misbehave, he said.

"I feel that my ability to teach effectively is being undermined, because I cannot correct (the student) for his disciplines because I feel the ramifications are going to come back on me for doing it," Travis said.

"I do approach (the student) differently out of concern that Mrs. Sweeney will retaliate," Blackwell wrote in a follow-up letter after her initial interview with Martin.

"I feel that any minor point that could be misconstrued as unfairness would get reported to Mrs. Sweeney and I would then be disciplined."

This year, the student was among several who had allegedly plagiarized material for projects for Brown and Travis. During a conference between the boy's teachers and the Sweeneys in early November, Vivian Sweeney reportedly threatened to file an ethics complaint to the state Department of Education against the teachers "unless we removed the plagiarism record from (the student's) grades," said Travis, who teaches American history and geography this year.

"This was taken by all of us as a threat and blatant intimidation," he said.

According to Brown, Sweeney wanted the teachers to allow her son to redo the project to earn a grade. She said Sweeney put it this way as the conference was wrapping up: "This is nothing personal. We like you. You're good teachers. This can all disappear if it's fixed by Monday."

Last school year, as the summer approached, teachers say Sweeney pressured them to exempt her son from most of the work he missed during frequent and extended absences.

In an environment of looming staff cuts, the teachers say, they felt compelled to do so.

"We were a little nervous about doing anything that might jeopardize our positions, so most of us complied and we just went ahead and exempted him from much of that work, even though we didn't feel comfortable with doing it," Travis said.

Batchelor agreed. "I felt like I was in a corner and did it," she said.

Blackwell said Sweeney at that time put grade change forms in her mailbox for her son, something a parent typically would not be able to do. Blackwell said she wasn't told explicitly by Sweeney to change a grade and made the change only after she received the missing work.

Dianne Azzarelli, the assistant principal over the Quest Academy, said in her testimony that Vivian Sweeney accessed records and pressured employees to find out the other punishments of students involved and compare them to what her son received.

"She uses her administrative authority to ... get items that if any parent walked in here and asked for, would not have access to," Azzarelli said.

The Sweeneys would try to intervene to get a lighter punishment for their son, Azzarelli said. From her perspective, Explorer principal Ray Pinder was "caught in the middle."

In his testimony, Pinder said he was never told by the Sweeneys to change or dismiss disciplinary action against their son. He said he never witnessed Sweeney bullying teachers or pressuring them to change grades or accept late work. Assistant principal Barbara Kidder said the same.

When asked during the investigation about the alleged threat after the parent conference, Vivian Sweeney responded that she did say she would file a complaint with the state but specified at the time that she would do so "as a parent." She said the teachers had not taught students how to reference material, so it was unfair to discipline them for plagiarism.

She denied that she told teachers they could remedy the issue by fixing the grade. And she noted that she is not the administrator for the Quest Academy and does not supervise the teachers who made the complaint.

"I've never once done anything in the least bit crossing over the line as an administrator," said Sweeney, who has worked for the district since 1999. "I really feel these teachers have no standing at all because I have never interacted with them in an other capacity other than a parent."

"It really seems that the teachers and the union overreacted," Vivian Sweeney said Wednesday in an interview with the Times. "We were there as parents concerned that our child was being dealt with in a manner that wasn't fair, so we spoke up."

Still, Martin wrote in her report that Sweeney and other administrators can take steps to avoid issues in the future.

"It appears that there have been blurred lines between actions as parents and as an administrator," she wrote. "This has caused conflict between administration and staff."

She recommended that Pinder talk to Sweeney about how her previous comments and actions "can be perceived as an abuse of power and authority" and give direction on how to avoid that in the future.

Sweeney, according to Martin, should communicate with teachers as any other parent would — through personal e-mail and during scheduled conferences. She should not complete grade change request forms, Martin said. And Pinder should make sure any punishment given to the Sweeneys' son is consistent with those of other students and the district's code of conduct.

"The principal should take reasonable, appropriate actions to ensure privileges are not asked for, given or expected for Mrs. Sweeney's child," Martin wrote.

Superintendent Sonya Jackson did not return messages left for comment Wednesday. Messages left for the teachers at Explorer were not returned.

John Sweeney said he and his wife were shocked to find union representatives at last month's parent conference. He said they only sought better communication from teachers on their son's status and that progress has been made in that regard.

"It's starting to get a little better and I don't want anything to jeopardize that," he said.

Martin's recommendations are a good result to help put teachers more at ease and emphasize boundaries for parents who work for the district, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

"It's always difficult to be an employee first instead of a parent," Vitalo said. "Sometimes maybe we need to be tapped on the shoulder and reminded."

School district inquiry says allegations of bullying by assistant principal not founded 12/23/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 23, 2009 8:24pm]
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