Compliance specialist to principals: Call before it’s a crisis 


Q:  I’m a compliance specialist in a large district in New York. I’ve worked in my department for years, so I’ve learned how to handle a wide range of issues. Some of the same scenarios pop up year after year, and very few things stump me. And yet, the same principals reach out to me over and over again, while other principals never ask for help. I wish they’d all call me when it’s a 411 rather than a 911! At that point, I’m extinguishing fires and my job is exponentially harder. I’m thinking of one principal in particular who didn’t consult me before talking publicly about a sexual harassment issue involving a coach and a female athlete at his school. He violated the student’s confidentiality and gave the false impression that he didn’t take the incident seriously. The parent community called for his head on a plate. I’m not a miracle worker, but that was entirely avoidable. I can save a principal’s reputation or at least spare him a headache. I don’t know what keeps the reticent ones from seeking my guidance. Maybe they don’t understand what compliance specialists do, don’t want to appear weak, or don’t want to bother me. I try to explain my role when opportunities present themselves, but I’m obviously not doing enough. Can you help me figure out how to change this? 


A: Let’s start by exploring the reasons why principals aren’t reaching out to you. You’ve mentioned some possibilities, including not wanting to appear weak, not understanding your role, or not wanting to overstep. They might be too proud — or, conversely, feel unworthy of your help. They might be overwhelmed and scattered, or reluctant to relinquish control, or in denial. Or they may feel they’re handling everything just fine and have no clue they’re in way over their head. In other words, it could be anything. 

Even principals who understand that great leaders ask for help may find it hard to admit they don’t have it all together. That may fall far outside their comfort zone. Here are several ways to encourage all principals to consult with you more often: 

  • Talk to the principals who do ask for help. Ask them to spread the word and tell their colleagues that you’re an excellent resource. They can raise awareness of your role and normalize seeking your assistance.  
  • Present at a principal professional day and share revealing stories. One compliance specialist told me about a principal who struggled to help an underperforming teacher. He tried everything from sending in back-up support to documenting her missteps, but nothing worked. This went on for two years as her behavior grew increasingly erratic. Frustrated parents wrote letters to the Board and students asked to be pulled from her class. The principal did eventually seek the compliance specialist’s help, but she wishes he had contacted her much earlier. As she notes, everyone would have suffered less. “Many teachers won’t tell their boss about a personal difficulty. If he had flagged her issues earlier, I would have reached out to her to figure out what was going on and explain her options. By the time we met, she was suicidal. Her mental illness had gone untreated for so long.”   
  • Consider sending out a reminder email at the beginning of the year to all principals, or add a paragraph or two about your department to any newsletter they receive. In the email or blurb, explain that helping principals address thorny situations is your job, and that you want to help. Point out that you can nip problems entirely or at least prevent them from getting bigger.  
  • Enlist the help of directors, consulting principals, and anyone else who mentors principals. Ask them to ensure that principals understand your expertise. Since you’re not in a supervisory role, principals may find you a less threatening source of support. 
  • To ensure you target the most reluctant principals (who may most need your help), could you visit everyone at their school at least once a year? It’s much easier to approach someone if you’ve had a positive in-person encounter. During the meetings, you could pose questions such as, “What challenges are you facing? Are you actively trying to put out any fires? How can I help you?” If there are certain problems that you know every principal confronts, bring them up and talk strategy. Ask, “How do you think you would handle that?” Then share what others have done and how you’ve helped them. 

As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come.” You sound like a creative and thoughtful problem-solver, so I suspect you’ll soon have the opposite problem — too many customers! 


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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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