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?