The complaint is based on claims investigative procedures were not followed properly

FORT MADISON — The father of a former Fort Madison Middle School student filed a complaint Friday with the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, claiming the district superintendent's investigation into an alleged incident between a student and school principal last fall violated the board's Code of Professional Conduct and Ethics and school board policy.

Specifically, the complaint states the Superintendent Erin Slater failed to report a suspected act of child abuse as required by state law; falsified or deliberately misrepresented or omitted material information submitted in the course of an official inquiry or investigation; and that it used unethical practice toward other members of the profession, parents, students and the community.

Slater was named a 2018 recipient of the Iowa State Education Association's TEAM (Together, Educators and Administrators Make it Happen) Award in August.

Brian Wright, the student's father, filed the complaint in hopes of holding the district accountable to its own policies and procedures.

"We're just looking for the school district and the (middle school) principal (Todd Dirth) to take responsibility for their actions," Wright said Monday. "The process, we just felt was violated."

A woman, who has requested her name be omitted from this report, notified Superintendent Erin Slater Sept. 20 of an incident between a student and middle school principal Dirth that occurred Sept. 19, wherein Dirth allegedly grabbed the student by the arm, subsequently causing her to bruise, when she did not respond to Dirth's morning greeting.

According to the complaint, Slater was granted permission by the student's parents for her to speak with Dirth after Slater spoke with him.

"We were of the assumption that another school official would be present during the meeting with (the student) and that we, as parents, would be allowed to be in the meeting," the complaint states. "This was not the case, as there was no other school official present, nor were we as parents allowed or invited to attend the meeting between (the student) and Mr. Dirth.

"We found this to be highly inappropriate and asked for a meeting with the principal and superintendent to discuss the incident of our daughter being physically assaulted by the principal," which happened Nov. 27.

During that meeting, the complaint states, Slater told the woman and Wright she addressed the incident with Dirth, proper procedure was followed and disciplinary action had been taken. Specifics on what the procedure was or what the disciplinary action consisted of were not disclosed.

According to school board policy, reported physical abuse should be investigated by the superintendent. Per board policy 402.3-R-1, "The entire investigative procedure will be thoroughly explained, including the confidential nature of the proceedings, to the student and other persons involved in the investigation."

School board policy also states a copy of the investigative report — which should include a general review of the investigation, any actions taken for the protection and safety of the student, a statement that the investigator believes the allegations to be either founded or unfounded and a listing of the options available to the parents or guardian of the student to pursue the allegations, among other things — will be provided to the student's parent or guardian.

Neither Wright nor the woman received such documentation. 

Still unsatisfied, Wright and the woman met with school board president Tim Wondra Jan. 8 and subsequently with the school's resource officer — who, according to the complaint, had not been consulted about the incident — to request he investigate because he believed Slater had not followed board policy. The parents also spoke about their concerns about the lack of investigation to the school board, speaking publicly during a school board meeting May 21.

They weren't the only ones to speak out during that meeting about concerns regarding the middle school principal's treatment of students. As reported by The Daily Democrat, a former student said he forcibly removed a paperclip from his lip piercing, one mother said the principal smacked her son upside the head and another said her autistic child, who at the time was undiagnosed, was restrained with a chair by the principal.

Slater responded to those statements with a press release sent to the Daily Democrat saying the district takes seriously complaints it receives and appropriately addresses those concerns.

“The fact that the parents do not agree with what the District has done does not mean that the District took no action or did not appropriately address the situation,” Slater said in the press release.

Unsatisfied with the district's response to his concerns, however, Wright emailed Slater June 19 requesting a copy of the investigation report. Slater said no such report had been made because a Level 1 investigation had not been used in the incident because Dirth told Slater the student told him during the meeting between himself and the student there was no issue. She also said she thought the woman, who initially reported the incident, felt the incident had been resolved.

Frustrated with the way the incident was dealt with, Wright turned to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, which has 180 days to resolve the complaint unless there is cause for an extension.

The complaint now will be reviewed by staff, who will decide whether to accept or reject it. If accepted, an investigator will be assigned to it and conduct an investigation. A board review of the investigative report again will determine whether there is probably cause. If probably cause is found, the board will issue a hearing notice. If no settlement is reached, an administrative law judge will conduct a hearing and issue a proposed decision for board consideration.

The board then can consider respondent appeals, initiate a case review or make a final decision. The respondent or complainant then may file for judicial review in district court.