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Whitnall School Board committee to work on a communication policy in wake of firing

Officials to consider letting parents know when school employee arrested

April 2, 2013

Greenfield - In retrospect, Whitnall School Board President Nancy Zaborowski said this week it probably would have been better to have notified parents of the arrest the food service manager even though school officials did not know many of the details.

Some parents and even some School Board members were upset that the district did not let parents know of the arrest of James Heidke, 55, until March 5 - five days after he was actually charged and a day after the news was aired on a local television station.

Heidke was arrested Feb. 23 and charged Feb. 28 by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office with using a computer to promote a child sex crime. No Whitnall students were affected, school officials said.

Heidke worked for a company that provides school lunches.

No simple answers

The School District held an information session last week to explain the timeline to parents and answer questions.

"What we heard was that people wanted to know earlier," Zaborowski said. "I get that."

Even though that might be the way to go, it isn't simple, she said. The schools will need to seek an attorney's opinion about whether such arrest information is public and whether names can be used.

Another problem is that sending out potentially scary news bulletins with scanty information will likely trigger a storm of questions that officials would not be able to answer, Zaborowski said.

"We could say more information to follow," she suggested, but there are hazards even to that. "A person could be arrested and nothing even comes of it."

Or a person could be arrested on one charge, but the DA's office files a lesser charge, she said.

School Board member T.J. Anderson tended to agree.

"Arrest is one thing, a charge and conviction is another," Anderson said. "You can't assume if there is just an arrest."

The crucial thing is that the employee was removed from the schools as soon as he was arrested, Anderson said.

Transparency desired

But that is not enough, objected School Board member Quin Brunette.

"All they needed to say was that he was arrested for an alleged sex crime, he was not an employee, and that parents should talk to their children and contact the schools if there was any contact (with Heidke)," Quin said.

"That was enough information right there," and it should have gone out to parents, he said.

One of the school district's goals for the year is to have more effective and timely communication and Brunette said the district failed in this case.

"There's no transparency at all."

The board's policy committee will work on a communication policy and Brunette said he would push for letting parents know anytime staff, an administrator or a contract employee is arrested.

One immediate outcome of the incident was that Greenfield Police Chief Bradley Wentlandt stepped up to let Whitnall officials know of police activity anywhere involving people who work in the Whitnall schools, whether they work directly for the schools or for companies serving the schools,as in Heidke's case.

He was arrested by Milwaukee police in Whitefish Bay.

That police connection will bring information in sooner, Anderson said.

But getting early notification didn't seem to help much in this case. School officials said they were notified Feb. 25 of the arrest and told there was no indication that any Whitnall students were involved. Officials then waited for more information.

The complaint with that information was filed Feb. 28, which was a Thursday. The parent notification didn't go out until March 5, the following Tuesday and the day after Superintendent Lowell Holtz was contacted by the television station.

Even though some were upset, Holtz said the vast majority of parents are comfortable with the way communication was handled. After sending nearly 4,000 emails to district parents inviting questions, he received only two.

Fewer than 30 parents were at the information session, he said.

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