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March 27, 2004

State board official probes deaf school protest

From: Idaho State Journal - Pocatello,ID,USA - Mar 27, 2004

GOODING (AP) - A State Board of Education official is investigating whether any employees of the Idaho School for the Deaf and Blind helped students organize a three-day walkout last October.

Harv Lyter, who serves as the board's operations and performance officer as well as the acting superintendent of the school, sent an e-mail to school employees last week and asked students to give him any information about staff or faculty members planning or directing the protests.

About 25 students walked out of classes for three days in October to demand the reinstatement of Angel Ramos, the school's superintendent. Ramos has been on paid administrative leave since July 30 after disagreements about his management style and accusations of possible financial mismanagement divided the school.

Lyter said he could not comment on the progress of the investigation. But he warned that if school employees did assist in the protest, they may have violated the Ethics in Government Act, and he would have the authority to discipline offenders.

But that statute essentially prevents public employees from taking part in contracts in which they have a conflict of interest. It does not appear to prohibit employees from protesting or giving advice about protests.

Rick Hartwell, spokesman for the Save Our Superintendent Committee, said the investigation was self-destructive.

"It pits employees against employees, students against teachers. It threatens any possibility of rebuilding trust. It perpetuates fear and intimidation among already fragile professional and educational relationships," Hartwell told The Times-News. "It is a 'witch hunt' which will produce no winners."

Jack Van Valkenburgh, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, said the investigation could raise issues of employees' freedom of speech and the right to due process. No one from the school has appealed to the ACLU for help, Van Valkenburgh said.

Lyter said the protest has been a topic of gossip at the school since October. If there are grounds to accusations about staff involvement in the demonstration, people should go through the proper channels to air them, he said.

"It's time to either get the cards on the table or stop talking about it," Lyter said. "I don't operate on the basis of innuendo. It's time for this needless bickering to end."

Ramos had no comment on the investigation.

In February, Hearing Officer Charles McDevitt recommended that the state board reinstate Ramos. McDevitt stuck to his decision after the board's attorneys petitioned him to reconsider.

The board, which has final say over Ramos's fate, is scheduled to meet April 22-23 at North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene.

Copyright © 2004 Pocatello Idaho State Journal