Washington State's first ombudsman for public schools, Adie Simmons, helps families navigate the myriad complexities from classroom bullies to students' grandparents acting as guardians.
Adie Simmons directs Washington’s Office of Education Ombudsman, the first state-level K-12 ombudsman in the nation. The office assisted 2,170 families last year, its first full school year of operation. Her title is set by the state Legislature.
Q: The subject that parents called about most often last year was bullying. Did that surprise you?
A: It didn’t. We all have memories of being involved in, or seeing a case of bullying. But things are a little more complicated now. There’s cyber-bullying. There’s bullying that happens in the community. Schools are confused about how to deal with all these different types of incidents. Parents don’t know what to do.
Q: What was the toughest case you handled last year?
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A: We’re seeing a lot of students whose grandparents are their legal guardians. In one case, the grandparents were frail and needed assistance to go to the school building. They couldn’t do as much as they wanted to do. We ended up working with the student. It just breaks your heart. As you can imagine, because these are human stories, and they’re complex, all of them. Q: Other stories that stand out?
A: One student from another culture called, wanting us to talk to his mom to explain the U.S. school system. He wanted his mom to participate in his education, but she had not been able to figure out what she could do. It was very, very wonderful for a 15-year-old to call and say, “Help my parents.”
Q: Are parents generally too assertive, or not enough?
A: There are parents who need a little push from our office to say, “You can do this. Yes, you can go talk to the principal. You have the right to bring this issue up.”
Q: But do you sometimes have to tell some parents — politely — that they need to back off?
A: We do some reality checks, yes. We try to de-escalate the situation and bring them back to what is feasible.
Q: What’s an example of how you’ve empowered a parent?
A: We had a parent who wasn’t able to communicate calmly with a school principal because she was too emotional about the situation. After a few sessions with one of our ombudsmen, she understood how to communicate respectfully, that she needed to make an appointment before showing up for a meeting, and how to find school district policies. She came back to us and said, “It worked, it actually worked.”