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Bridging a gap, restoring trust


The parent - who was frustrated by discipline issues, the complexities of special education and her child's individual education plans (IEP) - was at the end of her rope.

She was not satisfied with the response she received from her child's high school and was still in search of answers when she turned to Robin Shell, Howard County's first school ombudsman.

"By that point, the parent had lost trust that the parent was being heard," said Shell.

Shell, 44, met with the parent, school administrators and special-education teachers to get a better grasp of the situation.

"Through several meetings and follow-ups, the discipline issue and compliance issue was addressed," said Shell, who has spent the past school year listening, researching and resolving disputes and questions involving the school system, which educates more than 48,000 students.

From Feb. 7, 2005, to March 31, 2006, Shell resolved 130 cases. Of those, 36 percent concerned school administration; 14 percent involved student discipline; and parent concerns involving special education and bullying each comprised 11 percent.

"Not all outcomes end the way the person ... would want them to be," Shell said. "It is important to me to know that the process is fair and that people can come to me and know that the information is confidential in reaching an outcome."

Forty-two percent of Shell's visits originated from high schools, 26 percent from middle schools, 18 percent from elementary schools, 12 percent from central office and 2 percent from preschools.

"I wish there was a typical day," said Shell, who estimates that she usually spends up to two hours talking about an issue, and a little over a day resolving the problem. "You don't know in any given week how many people will contact the office."

Shell, who works Monday through Thursday and earns $67,200 a year, was immediately intrigued by the position when she learned of it. The school board received 77 applications during a three-month search and narrowed the competition to 11 finalists.

"It was an awesome opportunity," Shell said. "There are only five ombudsmen in the entire state that deal with public education."

The board advertised the position after the 2003-2004 school year that included the departure of then-Superintendent John R. O'Rourke and two grade-changing controversies. Some believed having an ombudsman could have eased some of the tension that existed during that period.

Shell, who has a bachelor's degree in economics and political science from Howard University, and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, separated herself from the pack with a variety of work experience that included some ombudsmen duties.

Her career has included working as deputy general counsel for Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., as an associate at the law firms of Linowes and Blocher and at Laxalt, Washington, Perito and Dubuc.

Shell also worked as a volunteer ombudsman for the National Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. There, she helped resolve disputes between National Guard and Reserve service members and their employers. Shell served as a volunteer mediator for the District Court of Maryland and for the Community Mediation Board for the Prince George's County Office of Community Relations.

"I really do see that the role of the ombudsmen as such a crucial role," said Shell, who reports to the five-member Board of Education. "It helps the board not focus on the day-to-day issues that come up, and yet they still have an idea of what those issues are."

In addition to her work experience, Shell brought firsthand knowledge of the Maryland education system. She lives in Prince George's County with her husband and five children, ranging in age from 2 to 16. She also has taught at Anne Arundel Community College and at the University of Baltimore and George Washington University law schools.

Shell said it is important to strike a balance between her professional and personal life.

"I try not to overbook my personal obligations," Shell said. "I try to make sure I spend time with my family."

Board members said they are pleased with Shell and the position.

"She's helped streamline the communications process with parents and schools," said board Chairman Joshua Kaufman, who was instrumental in hiring an ombudsman. "The position has accomplished exactly what the board set out. It has been fine. It has been very productive."

At first, board member Patricia Gordon was apprehensive about hiring an ombudsman, but Shell made her a believer.

"I'm totally convinced that we need the ombudsmen position," Gordon said. "This has been a very positive experience and an excellent position to have."

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