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Spokeswoman: Personnel rules prevent some communications


Editor’s note: In addition to responding to the following interview questions, Beth Graser, the Hillsboro School District’s communications director, provided a statement to accompany her responses:

We acknowledge there has been frustration and confusion around the situation with Mr. Jensen at Liberty High School. Please know that our goal as a school district is always to communicate well and to continually improve our communication efforts.

Unfortunately, each situation is different and brings with it a unique set of circumstances that require collective decision-making. Before putting anything out to parents or the broader public, we ask ourselves versions of the following questions: Do we have all the facts? Who needs to know about this? Is there a compelling reason to communicate beyond those who are directly involved? Will communicating about this serve to inform and calm people, or confuse and alarm them unnecessarily? Are we allowed to communicate about this? What are the best channels to use in communicating this issue?

In the case of Mr. Jensen, the main complicating factors were that we were receiving direction from the police and our lawyer to minimally communicate; we were dealing with a personnel matter, which, by law, is largely confidential; and we had a student victim to protect.

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Hillsboro Tribune: What is current protocol at schools to alert staff to a non-emergency situation such as the arrest and subsequent administrative leave of a school employee?

Beth Graser: Typically, principals will hold a meeting before school (or after, depending on the timing of the event) to alert staff about a non-emergency situation that warrants their knowledge.

Hillsboro Tribune: Is that sort of decision made at the individual school or at the district level? And does it vary by school (i.e., is it the principal’s call as to what and when to communicate to staff)?

Graser: On a daily basis, principals deal with a variety of issues and make judgment calls about the level and type of response, and any sort of communication that will take place as a result. Occasionally, there are instances where the incident or circumstance at hand requires consultation with their executive director and/or district-level awareness and response. A staff member’s arrest would certainly be something requiring the latter.

Hillsboro Tribune: Is there a protocol to let parents at the affected school know about a situation like an arrest? Is it protocol to make a statement to let the public know? Or do you weigh each situation individually?

Graser: Each situation is weighed individually to determine the best and most appropriate course of action for communication. We respond to media inquiries about staff incidents in a limited fashion, with information that is a matter of public record and that doesn’t put us at risk of violating our responsibilities to maintain personnel file confidentiality.

We typically do not prepare statements about pending personnel matters.

Hillsboro Tribune: What are the difficulties/constraints the district faces when communicating to students, staff, or the public about the arrest of a school district employee? What kinds of considerations do you discuss when deciding whether to go ahead and make a public announcement regarding an employee arrest?

Graser: Any time we have a staff member under police investigation or subject to arrest, we collaborate closely with law enforcement and our labor attorney and take our lead from them in terms of communication. We never want to hinder a police investigation, compromise the integrity of a case, or put the district at risk of a lawsuit by the things we say or do. At the same time, we are the employer. We have our own need to conduct internal investigations and determine what’s next with that staff member’s job status. We also have a responsibility to maintain confidentiality over the staff member’s personnel file and provide them due process. Depending on the staff member’s affiliation, we may also have a union contract by which to abide.

Hillsboro Tribune: There has been some concern expressed by the public and by board members that lack a information to parents, students, staff at Liberty High when Gregg Jensen was arrested led to rumors, inaccuracies, etc. In hindsight, how could the district/school have communicated better?

Graser: Immediately after we were made aware of Mr. Jensen’s possible misconduct, we communicated with police and with those at the school who were directly involved. We also consulted with our labor attorney. Mr. Jensen was placed on administrative leave before school the following day. Several days later, police had prepared the charges against Mr. Jensen, arrested him, and put out their press release. We inquired about putting out our own information to families, but police asked that we not do that and instead simply direct people back to their press release.

Based on the significant constraints on the district as an employer to not disclose confidential personnel information, and based on the police department’s instructions, I’m not sure what more we could have said other than what was in the Hillsboro Police Department’s media release.

The very words “sexual abuse … involving a student” are going to cause emotional and visceral reactions in people. In the absence of specifics, it’s not surprising blanks would get filled in with rumor and speculation. When the media did run stories that included additional details, many people found that upsetting and inappropriate.

Building administrators did communicate with staff members and attempted to answer questions as best they could. They talked about having staff encourage students to not spread rumors and to talk to their counselor or a member of the administration if they were struggling. We also received individual calls and questions and dealt with those as they came in at both the school and district levels.

Public employees understand they are under a different level of scrutiny than those in the private sector. Their salaries and contracts are matters of public record, as are the e-mails they send. School district employees also understand that, because they work directly with children, they are held to a higher standard of behavior and moral judgment than others. However, they do not check all their rights at the door. They are afforded privacy and due process, and they can expect their employer will not violate those rights. Given that, I would be hard-pressed to identify a personnel situation (other than a death) for which we would put out an official communication to parents or the public.

That said, perhaps we could have simply forwarded the police department’s official press release, acknowledged the situation was being handled at the district and law enforcement levels, and asked for understanding of our constraints to provide information.