Power, sex, and leadership: an urgent policy need

Since June, I’ve become aware of three personnel decisions or relationships tainted by allegations of favoritism or mistreatment tied to undisclosed consensual sexual relationships. I’ve been made aware by the public or close stakeholders who provided detailed accusations. I make no claims about the truth of the allegations — only their existence and detail.

One of three has already resolved itself with the departure of the top two officials in the District’s Accountability department. Two others are school-based. I’ve shared the same information given to me with District leadership and HR. I am satisfied for now that the information is being investigated. I am awaiting the outcome before speaking further on any details.

Why I’m speaking publicly now

I debated with myself whether to say anything at all publicly until the investigations have run their course. But Kathryn LeRoy’s behavior with a top subordinate tore gaping holes in the morale and direction of the school district for a year before it became public. Silence was deadly. And I harshly criticized the School Board for its silence and inaction, before and during last year’s campaign. Moreover, people with knowledge of the school and departmental communities surrounding these issues are openly talking about them. Nobody’s silence will change that. It just lets the poison circulate indefinitely.

Just as important, I want the people in our schools and district facilities to know that I will take allegations of abuse of power — sexual and otherwise — very, very seriously. The people who report abuse of power are always the most vulnerable to repercussions from that power. They need to know that their political leadership will hold their operational leadership accountable for a culture of fair and responsible leadership. That is how we will build common purpose and trust together.

So everyone should know: I am watching what happens here extremely closely. The toxicity that grows up around these issues is deadly to a sense of community. I won’t have it, if I can do anything at all about it.

The first thing I can do about it, systemically, I’ve already set in motion.

A policy proposal

Polk County schools have a sexual harassment policy and a nepotism policy. But we have no written policy concerning supervisors and non-marital romantic relationships. Apparently, very few districts have one. I have asked staff to formulate a policy that:

— Mandates disclosure of any romantic/sexual relationship between people in a supervisory relationship. If you’re dating as teachers, and one of you becomes an AP, you need to let your principal know.

— Makes it clear that people who are or have been in romantic/sexual relationships cannot supervise each other.

I have consulted informally with HR, legal and policy staff, and union leadership. I’ve been pleased with the response from everyone. I plan to raise this issue with my fellow board members on Tuesday. I’m open to discussion about specifics.

I’ve received several examples of model policies, including one from Bay County, which seems to be the only Florida district that we know has one. But Vanderbilt University’s policy most elegantly lays out what I’m trying to accomplish.

Employees are encouraged to socialize and develop professional relationships in the workplace provided that these relationships do not interfere with the work performance of either individual or with the effective functioning of the workplace. Employees who engage in personal relationships (including romantic and sexual relationships) should be aware of their professional responsibilities and will be responsible for assuring that the relationship does not raise concerns about favoritism, bias, ethics and conflict of interest…

…Romantic or sexual relationships between employees where one individual has influence or control over the other’s conditions of employment are inappropriate. These relationships, even if consensual, may ultimately result in conflict or difficulties in the workplace. If such a relationship currently exists or develops, it must be disclosed: 

— The supervisor or employee who has influence or control over the other’s conditions of employment has an obligation to disclose his/her relationship to the department head or next level of administrator.

— The other employee involved in the relationship is encouraged to disclose the relationship to either the next level of administrator, Employee Relations or the EAD.

If a relationship is deemed to be inappropriate under these guidelines, the appropriate department head or next level of administrator, after consultation with the EAD and a Human Resources Consultant will take appropriate action. Actions taken may include, but are not limited to, an agreed upon transfer, a change in shift, a change in reporting structure, the Performance Management process or discharge.

Maturity and honesty are cultural expectations

I like this language because it’s not simply a box-checking, compliance-based policy. It sets a cultural and moral expectation. It treats its people like adults and expects them to behave like adults in return. I am no prude. People who work together often become attracted to one another and even fall in love. (My wife and I met in a quasi-supervisory workplace scenario at a Chili’s in Louisiana.) The challenge is to behave like mature adults when that happens and recognize the impact on the wider school and work community.

We hear much sexualized criticism of young people in our society, specifically teenagers — the clothes they wear, their sexual habits, the subject matter of their speech, texts, and music. Indeed, one often hears these implicit criticisms from educators. It’s understandable; they’re around kids all day. But I find much of it, if not all of it, unjustified.

And if we, at the Polk School District, are going to model responsible behavior for our kids, we have much work to do on our own maturity as an organization concerning sex and power. Shall we begin?

17 comments

  1. Speaking with my employment attorney hat on, your proposal is lawful and imminently sensible.

  2. William Hall

    You sir are a breath of fresh air. Keep up the good work

  3. Billy I agree with the new policy you have laid out here. I think favoritism runs rampant in all schools and should be addressed. Teachers that bust their buts should be equally recognized for their work. All teachers should be afforded the same respect as a teacher that is a favorite of the administration. Everyone should be grateful to you for taking up this matter.

  4. Joan King

    All-in-all, a very good idea to have a written policy on this pervasive problem; however, the following is a slippery slope IMHO and needs to be carefully considered and written: “If a relationship is deemed to be inappropriate under these guidelines…” My concern is that you will need to be very careful on how you interpret “inappropriate” beyond the obvious interpretations you have stated here. I have seen very large monetary damages paid to employees who have challenged rules like this. All I’m saying is be thorough, but sensible.

  5. Maggie Miller

    Billy, what Kemp said…Imminently sensible. Thank you for your dedication to ethical excellence!

  6. Dr. Beverly Wixon

    Thank you, Mr. Townsend. It is long past time that such a policy was put in place in Polk County Schools.

  7. Sarah Keener

    It shocks me that this doesn’t already exist. Most companies have policies like this. It doesn’t forbid a relationship, it just asks for transparency

  8. Joan King

    I forgot to add to my comment above: for those executive employees with employment contracts and bonus programs, you should ensure, when you write their contracts, that any incentive or bonus due them will NOT be paid if they are found in violation of this policy. Too many executives leave with very generous separation packages in spite of their egregious employment violations.

  9. Rozy Scott

    I feel this is an excellent policy and long overdue. The policy would improve employee morale and hopefully put more emphasis on student achievement.

  10. Kelly Fain

    Thank you for taking notice of this issue and leading the way for positive change.

  11. Wow. I’m almost speechless… almost. Where was this policy when I needed it? I only witnessed wrong doing and told the truth at the advice of the Board’s own attorney (who was painfully aware of the truth as were other cabinet members and at least one board member). The board thinks this is dead. I live it everyday. It’s alive and well and top level staff are still in shock and awe over how I and others were so harshly punished for the truth… and yes we still discuss it. I basically went from total assurance that when the board realized the truth everything would be ok to being unceremoniously kicked out of a job I had held since 1998. I could start on the lies that were told directly to my face about why it was done but I’ll try to continue to hold my head high secure in the knowledge that while I am NOT perfect and I did not react to everything perfectly, I did the best I could to survive a horrible situation and I told the truth. Not even all of it.

  12. Loretta Cameron

    In response to Joan King’s last comment, I agree completely. Separation under such conditions should not cost the district as it did last year.

  13. Melissa Hazlett

    I think this is a very sensible way of dealing with an issue that deserves attention.

  14. As I read this article, I too had believed there was a policy in place for the above aforementioned subject(s). I work for an entity within the county and I know we aren’t suppose to become involved with someone in the same department. With that being said, I’m sure it still goes on with a deaf ear and the head turned from such individuals. This sounds like a great idea, however, sometimes it takes time to identify such things as relationships and inappropriate behavior in professional setting (s). I wish you the best in being heard at he appropriate levels. Thank you for your service and opening up stories and things that Ned to have a positive change. Well written, newsworthy subject. Keep up the good work.

  15. Barb Boykin

    As an educator, I am willing to live by such edict. I beg my students to be “above reproach”; I abide by the same. And in my opinion, because of this, I feel it is acceptable at each step above me. This is normal protocol outside of education, and outside of education is where a large number of our students will eventually live their reality. “Preparing for college, career, and community…”

  16. This policy needs to be specified to include bullying, intimidation and retaliation by those in power positions. My husband and I both left a district school (he to the post-secondary sector, me to another school on the other side of the county) because of continued intimidation and retaliation by administrators. After 3 years, we couldn’t take it anymore and when we spoke with board members and district personnel, were told they would look into it but nothing was ever done. So we uprooted our children to put them in other schools so we could get out of that atmosphere. It is much more prevalent than you think at all levels. It is killing teacher morale and making teachers, good teachers, leave the system.

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