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Columbus City School Board Passes Whistleblower Policy

Columbus City School board members adopted a new policy last night which encourages employees to report suspected misconduct. WOSU reports the move comes as state and federal investigators look into alleged attendance rigging and improper grade changes in the district. The policy, aptly called the Whistleblower Reporting and Protection Policy, lays out what kind of misconduct Columbus City School employees should report and how to report it. And it protects informants from retribution. Columbus is the latest of several Central Ohio districts in recent months to pass whistleblower rules. State Auditor Dave Yost, the FBI and internal auditors are trying to get to the bottom of possible data manipulation. And in November, Yost’s chief legal counsel Bill Owen accused school officials of intimidating employees talking with investigators. "When I see a witness talk to an investigator and then call the next day crying that they are going to lose their job...that gives rise for concern." While the district denied the intimidation allegations, the state auditor’s office recommended it develop whistleblower rules. Previously, school employees could report suspected misconduct on the internal auditor’s webpage, but there was never a school board policy. Harris, who said the rules are overdue, heeded the state auditor’s advice to draft them. “Every organization needs some kind of policy to make sure that if there are individuals who need to report what they believe is wrongdoing then they need that opportunity to report," she said. The new whistleblower policy states employees are protected against retaliation if they report fraudulent or ethical wrongdoing, but the rules do not mention intimidation. Superintendent Gene Harris says she feels that’s covered. “I think this policy reflects best practices as it’s understood by the internal auditor, who has had time to review it, as well as our team," Harris said. "So I think it reflects best practice and I think it covers everything it needs to cover.â€? School employees have several channels to report fraudulent or ethical wrongdoing. While they can tell a supervisor, they don’t have to. Instead, they can give a tip through a district website or hotline. And workers can alert the state or district’s internal auditor of potential violations. School board member Mike Wiles said he wanted to make sure employees knew they could file a report anonymously. The board approved his amendment to the policy that makes all tips to the internal auditor anonymous unless a worker chooses to “opt inâ€? and give their name. But internal auditor Carolyn Smith said sometimes employee names are needed to follow up a report. And Harris also expressed concerns about anonymous tips. “If the encouragement is that every report is anonymous, it may encourage people to act irresponsibly.â€? Wiles also proposed requiring supervisors be disciplined for failing to report suspected misconduct. But the amendment did not pass. “I would have liked a little stronger language with the removing the ‘may’ be disciplined and replaced it with ‘will’ be disciplined. I think that would have sent a stronger message," he said.