School district adds compliance officer to staff

Date Published: 
January 31, 2014

The Indian River School District isn’t taking any chances. With so many federal and state regulations impacting its schools, the IRSD school board recently approved a new employee position, just to ensure IRSD can keep up: the director of compliance.

“There’s a lot of lawsuits coming out of Title IX and VII nowadays,” said Mark Steele, assistant superintendent for the district. “In a district our size, you want to make sure everything you do is correct … not discriminatory.”

IRSD has more than 9,100 students and more than 1,100 employees.

Steele and Director of Personnel Celeste Bunting recently attended a conference at which they learned that most higher education institutions have a director of compliance to help ensure requirements of educational systems are met. Schools that use federal funding must follow federal regulations.

For example, Title I requires meetings, minutes, parent conferences and notifications, Steele said. “Now we have someone to go back and make sure we’re on top of things.” That could help if the IRSD was ever audited.

Not only could students and staff be better protected, but the IRSD is less at risk of lawsuit with the extra level of scrutiny. Steele said Owens can respond to complaints or protect the district by showing it followed proper procedures.

“You always want to make sure you’ve done things the proper way,” Steele said. Without proof, “you kind of leave yourself open” in lawsuits and audits.

“I think with all the new laws passed on the national level,” Board President Charles Bireley said, it can be tricky to keep up. Typically, he said, when regulations are enacted, the notification trickles down from Department of Education to school districts.

Sussex Central High School’s principal, Jay Owens, will step up to fill the new role, but he’ll complete the school year at Central before going to the district office on July 1.

Currently, Steele serves as Title IX coordinator for the district.

“Part of the job description is to be an investigator in Title IX complaints. I’m in charge of making sure everything is investigated, parallel to any police investigation.”

Title IX well known for prohibiting discrimination based on gender in any educational program, including sports, classrooms, sexual harassment cases and much more.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 introduced Title VII, prohibiting employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender and national origin. Title II includes protections for those with disabilities. Title 1 includes funding aimed at closing the achievement gap between low-income students and other students.

Owens will handle these issues and much more, and he believes the role will evolve over time.

The district does already hold staff accountable, but Owens will make it his job to ensure the entire district meets the requirements.

“As principal now, I’m kind of able to ensure we’re compliant with those [regulations],” Owens said. “The district office informs us, trains us. … The principal oversees day-to-day [implementation].”

Right now, many district administrators cover various regulations in daily duties, so Owens will work closely with them and ease their workload.

“I’m excited. I’ve shared this new role with the staff,” he said. But Owens will “continue business as usual” with the students until June. “It’s a good career move. I enjoy being principal. I love being a principal and love the kids. This is a good opportunity to advance.

“I always tell folks, if [you have] an issue, try to deal with it at the school level,” Owens said, but if they aren’t rectified, he’ll be available in July for student, parent and employee concerns.

“Often, if you’re in compliance and have done everything you’re supposed to do, there’s a very good chance there will not be any lawsuits. All it takes is one minor non-compliance item,” Steele said.

The IRSD has previously faced lawsuits regarding employment, a student with disabilities and more. With that in mind, the school board hopes the position will pay for itself.