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Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015

School board member fears repeat of student grade leak

Tribune Staff


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BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County School Board Member Dianne Bonfield was clearly upset.

At the end of Tuesday night’s school board meeting, it was time for board members to speak.

Holding aloft a copy of the recent investigation into who released to local media the academic records of the son of fellow board member John Sweeney, Bonfield was exasperated that no one was found responsible.

“I read this with a magnifying glass,” Bonfield said of the investigation led by Heather Martin, the district’s Equity, Policy, Investigation and Compliance Officer. “From the bottom of my heart, I am deeply concerned and bitterly disappointed that this could happen — that there are (people who) could compromise their duty and release information that should be confidential.

“We’re here to protect our students, and (Sweeney’s son) has his name splashed all over the radio, media and Internet. “I’m appalled that this could happen in the Hernando County School District.”

The academic records were contained in internal memos leaked to the media in March. The memos alleged that Sweeney used his influence as a school board member to have his son’s grades at Springstead High School changed.

After the grade-changing allegations were published, a complaint was filed against Sweeney to the state’s Commission on Ethics. The commission does not publicly comment on complaints, or even confirm they exist, until they are resolved.

Last month, Sweeney dropped a complaint against School Superintendent Lori Romano over the release of his son’s school records, as well as a request for a hearing under the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

Sweeney lost a chance to retain his District 1 seat in last month’s primary, when challengers Mark Johnson and Don Whiting advanced to November’s general election. The investigation was released just before the primary.

Bonfield chose to retire this year, rather than seek a third term.

“The perpetrators have not at all been found guilty of anything,” Bonfield said. “This deals with one of our kids. I have no confidence in the process right now that this can’t happen again. I’m deeply troubled and disappointed.”

Sweeney thanked Bonfield for her comments. After the investigation was released last month, Sweeney characterized it as “purposefully inaccurate” and “incomplete.”

“It’s incumbent on the School Board to hold representatives of the district accountable,” he said Tuesday night. “We have a philosophical and actual responsibility to hold people accountable.”

In an email, Sweeney later said the district “does not appear to be serious about protecting rights, per FERPA.”

“It should be easy to get to the truth, and to hold people accountable,” he said. “If, for some reason, the district is uncomfortable with pursuing this matter, it may be a good time to bring in an investigator from outside of the system.

“It is important that parents and students know that the school district will do everything in its power to protect privacy. It is equally important that when this trust is breached, those responsible will be held accountable.”

Romano has declined to comment on the closed investigation, pending the outcome of the Commission on Ethics investigation of Sweeney.

In the aftermath of the leaked grades, school principals “were asked to remind staff about protecting students’ rights to privacy and on how to protect confidential student information,” district spokesman Eric Williams said in an email.

Those policies are also reviewed by all district staff during an annual review of the staff handbook and the state’s Code of Ethics, Williams said.

“We can’t provide any assurances that this type of breach of confidentiality will never occur again, as it’s largely the responsibility of individual staff to act as professionals in accordance with the law and established policies and procedures regarding students’ confidential information,” Williams said.

“As a district, we can only work to further educate and support staff in adhering to professional standards. One’s conscious choice to violate the law, policies or procedures is often beyond our control.”

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