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Supporters rally behind principal amid allegations

By Staff | Nov 24, 2009

At a Lee County School Board meeting three weeks ago, allegations of intimidation, bullying and harassment were aimed at Barbara Von Harten, principal of The Sanibel School, and her administration. Those allegations were brought forth by a group calling itself 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 school.

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.

But now, a small but growing group of parents is rallying behind Von Harten, throwing their support behind the current school administration and challenging the accusations some are calling “appalling” and “unfounded.”

Jean Gruss, a parent of two children currently enrolled at The Sanibel School, said on Monday that in his experience, the principal has performed admirably throughout her 12-year tenure.

“I don’t really know any of the specifics regarding their allegations, but I’ve been volunteering at the school for the past five years and (Von Harten) has always been 100 percent ethical,” said Gruss. “I feel that the attitude of this group of parents is not really representative of how most parents feel. Barbara is terrific. She’s doing a great job.”

Jeff Turner, who submitted a petition signed by 160 parents to the school board on Nov. 17, called Von Harten’s work “exemplary.”

“I told (the school board) that in my experience with my three children, Barbara Von Harten has always been positive,” said Turner, whose wife, Anna, is a clinic assistant at the school. “Not only with her but with other members of her staff. I’ve never seen any of that type of behavior they have alleged happened at the school.”

“Frankly, I was appalled to hear Barbara Von Harten’s name be denigrated the way that it was,” noted Lisa Williams, the mother of two school graduates and one current student. “She’s been a great role model to our children and has worked to the fullest extent for the betterment of the school and the community.”

Members of TEAM Sanibel claimed before the school board that special needs children were being forced out of the school to ensure that the school average did not decrease, while others said instances of bullying and harassment went unaddressed.

Mark Tesoro, whose daughter is enrolled in the school’s ESE (Exceptional Student Education) program, also praised the principal and staff for their work and support.

“The Sanibel School, the ESE program and Principal Von Harten worked together seamlessly to make sure that our daughter was accommodated as well as challenged in her classroom,” his letter to the school board reads in part. “Every IEP meeting I’ve attend has not only been extremely professional and well organized, but also sought our input as parents and was and full of options for our daughter.”

Last week, Superintendent of Schools James Browder reported that the Office of Civil Rights is conducting an investigation into the allegations. The district will also carry out a subsequent investigation within its professional standards and ESE department.

“I take all of these very seriously and I will make the right decision in the best interest of students, staff and the community,” said Browder, who expects the investigations to be completed in approximately three months.

Claudia Foster, a member of TEAM Sanibel, told the board about her children being bullied and subsequently ignored by school officials

“My children were both bullied and harassed over the last five years,” said Foster. “My oldest son was denied participation in his eighth-grade graduation ceremony because he refused to dig through a cafeteria trash can as ordered by his principal.”

Also, two teenage girls – former students at the school – said they were threatened with violence by other girls in the school, but nothing was done.

Arlene Dillon, a former media specialist at the school, said that she doesn’t recognize any of the allegations that she’s heard recently, standing firmly beside her friend and mentor.

“One of the reasons I wanted to work at The Sanibel School was the opportunity to work with Barbara,” said Dillion, who was employed at the school from 2007 to 2009. “I loved working there. I saw how (Von Harten) ran things in such a positive way, and how she was always forward-thinking. She gave a lot of thought before acting on things.”

However, Dillon also recognizes that both sides of the issue have to be heard before people rush to judgment.

“Everybody certainly has the right to voice their opinions and concerns, but nobody knows the whole story,” she added. “There is no way anyone can know for sure any of the things that they’re alleging.”

Craig Holston, who has two children currently enrolled at the school, said that he gives little validity to the charges aimed at Von Harten.

“I think (TEAM Sanibel) are a very small minority who are trying to drum up support to get her fired, but I don’t think that’s happening,” said Holston. “It’s really good for headline grabbing, but not much else.”

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.

On Tuesday, Foster told the Island Reporter that since the initial board meeting, TEAM Sanibel has gained many new members and supporters.

“Because of the media coverage and exposure, the response has been overwhelming,” she said. “I’ve had a lot parents come to me and that that they’ve had similar experiences at the school and want to know how they can get on board. It’s been a positive response for sure – our group had nearly doubled in size.”

Foster also noted that since the last board meeting, several people who signed the petition to support Von Harten and her staff have requested that their names be removed.

But until the school district’s investigation into these charges have been completed, islanders on both sides of the issue must simply stand by and await their decision.

“Why would anybody drag the name of a good woman like Barbara through the mud like that?” asked Dillon. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”