Cobb school board member looks to change investigations

A member of Cobb’s school board has proposed dramatically altering the way administrators investigate and discipline teachers and other staff members suspected of misconduct.

Board member Kathleen Angelucci wants to reduce administrators’ use of polygraph tests, allow employees to receive outside consultation during interrogations and fire people only in the most extreme circumstances.

The board is set to discuss the policy changes at its meeting Wednesday.

“The hope is for … a fair and complete due process,” Angelucci said. “We need to become more employee-friendly.”

The proposal follows widespread complaints from teachers and principals that in recent years senior administrators conducted sloppy and unnecessarily harsh investigations.

Last school year, the district and the local police dropped a series of high-profile investigations against two longtime principals because of the lack of evidence.

Some changes have already occurred.

In May Mary Finlayson, the district’s top investigator, was given 27 minutes to leave the building after being told her job was eliminated due to budget cuts. Another investigator, Jay Morrissey, has since turned in his resignation letter.

All of the district’s investigations will now be conducted by the chief human resources officer along with a “legal review team of senior staff,” said Cobb spokesman Jay Dillon.

“Teachers can now spend more time worrying about how to do their job and less time worrying about how to cover their butt,” John Adams, the executive director of Educators First, a local teachers’ advocacy group, said about the proposal.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said he is waiting to get feedback from the district’s principals before forming an opinion on the proposed changes.

Angelucci wants to provide more stringent guidelines on how administrators investigate employees suspected of misconduct.

Previously, local teacher organizations described a combative investigative process in which employees could be grilled by principals and investigators for hours with no advocates present.

Angelucci’s proposal allows for “non-attorney” representation during professional development, disciplinary or investigative conferences.

With the proposed changes, “We can help bridge the distance between administrator and employee,” said Connie Jackson, the president of the Cobb County Association of Educators.

Angelucci proposes that polygraph tests only be used “in very rare circumstances with the advance approval of the chief of human resources officer and the consent of the employee.”

The district is the only major school district in metro Atlanta that uses polygraph tests to try to determine whether a person is lying. Cobb’s school board amended its discipline policy last year to say employees who refuse to take the exam could be fired, a move Angelucci is looking to reverse.

Administrators say the tests are used in “he-said-she-said” cases such as allegations of sexual molestation or theft where there are few witnesses.

“These are not reliable and not admissible in court,” Jackson said. “Why should we be subjecting educational professionals to polygraphs? Teachers didn’t give up constitutional rights because we chose to teach children.”

Other proposed policy changes include stretching out the time of professional development plans to at least eight weeks and limiting investigations to 20 days. There currently is no time limit on investigations.

At last month’s board meeting, several board members praised the proposed changes. The board could vote on them by the end of this month.

“I think this is a great start,” said board member Scott Sweeney.