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District to investigate allegations at school

By Staff | Nov 11, 2009

After some disturbing news broke out last week regarding allegations aimed at Principal Barbara Von Harten and administrative staff members of The Sanibel School, the proverbial “line in the sand” was drawn, with the community taking sides on issues yet to be fully understood.

TEAM Sanibel (Transforming Educational Accountability Measures), which is comprised of past and present parents, past and present students as well as former staff members of The Sanibel School, is hoping that some explanation of the issues makes their case clear.

At the Nov. 3 meeting of the Lee County School Board, 38 TEAM Sanibel members attended the session and requested that an investigation be launched after allegations of Von Harten using “strong-arm” tactics to intimidate both teachers and students at the kindergarten through eighth grade school.

“We want to be clear that we’re not attacking the principal or any staff members at The Sanibel School, and that we’re not evil,” said Claudia Foster, one of the parents involved with TEAM Sanibel. “We are just asking for some accountability. We want to know if this is coming from (Von Harten) or from the school district.”

Foster’s sons have been bullied and physically harassed by Von Harten, she alleges.

During the meeting, Superintendent of Schools James Browder informed the group that their concerns would be addressed and a thorough investigation would be launched. Earlier this week, Browder acknowledged that he has six district-level offices investigating their concerns, which includes allegations of misusing Parent Teacher Association funds, intimidation of staff, parents and students, failure to maintain proper test records and failure to provide appropriate services for youngsters enrolled in the ESE (Exceptional Student Education) program.

On Wednesday afternoon, TEAM Sanibel e-mailed a four-page document to the Island Reporter detailing the mission of their group, answering some frequently asked questions raised since their meeting with the Lee County School Board and presenting some statistics regarding faculty turnover and student withdrawls from The Sanibel School.

“We fully support our wonderful teaching and support staff, and are striving for a fair, safe and equitable workplace,” their mission statement reads, in part. “We are working to create a learning environment in which each child, parent and staff member will be free from bullying, harassment, intimidation and discrimination. In doing so, we hope to raise the ethical standards and gain accountability within all levels of the district.”

Prior to last week’s district meeting, TEAM Sanibel claims to have submitted “at least 10” requests to investigate their concerns over the previous six weeks, which they say were “ignored or mishandled by various district-level offices.” However, they are encouraged that Browder is currently involved with looking into their concerns.

Von Harten, who began her tenure as principal 12 years ago, earned praise for her work as The Sanibel School has earned straight “A” grades from the Florida Department of Education each of the past 10 years. The two-time National Blue Ribbon Award-winning school also ranks among the highest FCAT scores in the state each year.

Calls seeking comment from Von Harten and The Sanibel School administration were not returned by press time. Because the investigation is still under way, the school district declined comment.

However, information being circulated by TEAM Sanibel clearly states that they are not looking to get anybody fired.

“We want to know exactly where the source of our concerns lies and have appropriate corrective action taken,” the group said via e-mail. “We also have federal agencies and advocates addressing our concerns, to ensure all levels of the district are held accountable. Additionally, we feel that there needs to be some policy changes at the district and state level, and are moving to address them.”