KCS Ombud A Resource
For Families And SchoolsPosted by Josh Flory on 9/9/2019
Knox County Schools wants every student to fulfill their potential and every family to feel confident about their child’s school.
But for a variety of reasons parents sometimes feel their voice isn’t being heard, whether it’s related to a discipline issue, a bullying concern or a conflict with a school employee.
With that in mind, the district in recent years created the office of ombudsman, which aims to identify opportunities for improvement and to help KCS families and employees resolve issues through mediation and education.
District Ombudsman Tammi Campbell has been a KCS educator for more than seventeen years, and previously worked as a Project Grad parent and Community Liaison and college access and support facilitator. She also has served as a school counselor and assistant principal at Hardin Valley Academy and Austin-East Magnet High School before taking on the Ombudsman position.
Campbell is a native Knoxvillian and was educated in KCS. She is a parent of a son who received special education support services in KCS, and both are alumni of Austin-East.
Campbell said her goal is to be a resource for students, families and staff. Sometimes that means helping with a simple issue -- such as identifying the right KCS employee to answer a particular question -- and sometimes it addresses more complicated issues, such as navigating a discipline appeal or understanding the district’s response to a bullying allegation.
“We’re trying to be that neutral party or third party, to remain objective as we look at various concerns and perceptions that may have surrounded a particular issue,” Campbell said.
The office of ombudsman includes Special Education Parent Liaison Sue Ownby, a former special education teacher and principal, who has also worked as an advocate with a non-profit agency that focused on the emotional and behavioral health of children.
Ownby works primarily with the families of special education students, and said that often involves answering questions and raising awareness of issues that are unique to special education.
“A lot of the special ed vocabulary is challenging for anyone to understand,” Ownby said. “I’ve found that a lot of times when we have disagreements, it’s more about communication. Parents are often asking for a lot of the same things that educators are, but sometimes it’s helpful to have somebody who can translate between the two groups.”
The ombudsman office grew out of a recommendation from the district’s Disparities in Educational Outcomes Task Force, which was created in 2014. The task force aimed to address disparities in academic achievement and discipline that might be correlated with income, race, language and/or disability, and the ombudsman was intended as a liaison to help address those disparities.
Parents or guardians can seek assistance from the ombudsman directly by submitting a service request. In other cases, the ombudsman gets involved in a situation at the request of a principal.
Susan Dunlap, principal of Bearden Elementary, said Campbell assisted her school with a situation involving bus transportation and another related to an employee.
“If it’s potentially contentious, it’s nice to have a third party who is looking at it from a different perspective and may be able to see some things that could make the situation better,” Dunlap said.
Common issues involving the ombudsman include transfer requests, discipline outcomes and special education procedures. As an example, Ownby said parents often ask about why there are so many people in the room during a special education meeting.
“We don’t always do a great job of explaining to parents that for legal reasons, we have people in the room from the special education department and regular ed so that they can look at that child from both places,” she said. “I have the time to have those conversations with parents so it’s not an us-against-them, it’s an effort to give parents as many resources as possible in that environment.”
The ombudsman has also gotten involved in certain situations at middle and high schools where students have used discriminatory or inappropriate language. In those cases, Campbell said, school administrators have already taken steps to address the situation, but she was invited in to help foster a conversation.
“Really we’re trying to approach it from a standpoint of awareness and understanding, but also policy, and knowing what policies our administrators are bound by when they address those types of behaviors,” she said.
Besides reacting to situations that come up during the school year, the ombudsman’s office also works proactively to bring parents into the policy-making process.
Campbell facilitates the work of the Family Advisory Council, which provides recommendations and feedback related to KCS policy and practices. Ownby does the same for the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, which provides a network for families and students with special needs and coordinates meetings with KCS representatives to discuss issues of concern for those families.
And while not all of the ombudsman’s work involves conflict, both Ownby and Campbell said that listening and communication are a major part of their role.
“I’ll often say to school employees, ‘I’m just wanting you to be aware of how this parent is feeling,’” Ownby said. “‘Whether you feel like this is an accurate description, this is how that parent is feeling.’ Sometimes people can really change the conversation just based on that information. We certainly do that with parents, too: ‘If someone had said this to you, how would you feel about that?’ Because I think that’s important for both of them to hear.”
Ultimately, the goal of the office is to provide another avenue for KCS students, families and employees to feel heard.
Seth Smith, the principal of Fulton High School, until recently served as principal at the Richard Yoakley Transition School. Yoakley aims to help students who have not succeeded at their base school be re-integrated into a traditional classroom, and Smith said parents and staff have reacted positively to the ombudsman’s work.
“For a lot of parents it’s like, ‘Hey, this is somebody that’s in my corner and I can kind of go to … And for teachers, they feel like, ‘Hey, it’s also somebody that’s trying to help us all do the right thing.’”
Tammi Campbell can be reached at (865) 594-1192 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sue Ownby can be reached at (865) 594-1538 or email@example.com.