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Supporters rally behind Sanibel principal

By Staff | Nov 30, 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.