A letter sent to all Duveneck Elementary School parents on April 15 by the school's principal about a new investigation into bullying at the school brought a sharp and immediate rebuke by the federal Office for Civil Rights, according to documents obtained by the Palo Alto Weekly.
Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) supervising attorney Zachary Pelchat called Duveneck Principal Chris Grierson's notification of parents about an open complaint investigation "highly unusual" and raised concerns about the privacy rights of the complainant and the impact on the investigation, according to a letter to Superintendent Kevin Skelly dated April 17.
Pelchat also warned the district exposes itself to new charges of retaliation if the family believes their complaint has led to intimidation or harassment by the school or district.
Grierson's emailed letter, which was quickly forwarded to the Weekly by Duveneck families, was odd because of the district's prior steadfast insistence on not providing any details on bullying cases that might lead to the identity of the students involved.
In an interview with the Weekly days earlier, Skelly declined to name the school or provide the age or gender of the student involved in the latest case, citing privacy policies and concerns. The Weekly's initial story did not name Duveneck, although it was updated after Grierson's email was sent out.
Skelly told the Weekly afterward he had approved Grierson's letter to parents and that its purpose was to "improve communications at the site" given the fact the Weekly was intending to publish a story.
Among other statements, Grierson had called the new investigation a response to a "national rally cry on bullying."
But OCR attorney Pelchat chastised the district on that point, stating, "Please note that the OCR does not open complaints based on a 'national rally cry.' Complaints alleging harassment based on disability are opened when they allege sufficient facts that, if true, would be a violation of the District's obligations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the American with Disabilities Act. Therefore, the complaint investigation ... is a serious allegation that the District has unlawfully discriminated against one of its students, and we hope the District is considering the investigation with the level of concern appropriate to an alleged civil rights violation."
In response to the Office for Civil Rights warning letter, Skelly followed up with a phone conversation with Office for Civil Rights attorneys and an email, released by the district, stating the district was under "scrutiny" by the media and forwarded copies of requests for documents submitted by the Weekly.
"We would not, as a practice, discuss these issues with our community based on the filing of an OCR report. We are aware of the expectations of privacy and retaliation issues and are vigilant in that regard," Skelly wrote.
Skelly declined to comment to the Weekly on why the email speculated that the investigation was "addressing a national rally cry."
Grierson's email said that a parent at the school had contacted the Office for Civil Rights "expressing concerns about bullying behavior."
He said the school would cooperate fully with the investigation and his intention was to "offer a thorough and thoughtful examination of this matter."
"Please do not be alarmed by the OCR's interest in this matter. As I see it, the OCR is addressing a national rally cry on the issue of bullying," he wrote. "I wanted to contact you with this information, rather than having you hear about it through the media or social media."
The school district received notification in early April of two new cases alleging illegal discrimination, the case now known to be at Duveneck involving bullying and disability discrimination, and a case at a middle school alleging racial discrimination.
The district is in the process of responding to lengthy requests from OCR for documents and information in both cases.
In the racial discrimination case, a substitute teacher accused a student of stealing money from her last November.
On Tuesday, May 7, the Palo Alto school board will discuss the topic of bullying as part of its "Safe and Welcoming Schools Action Plan." The plan is aimed at better supporting student safety and well-being, including behavior expectations and responses to bullying, the agenda states.
An update on the district's work with the Office for Civil Rights and a presentation titled "Lessons learned" are scheduled as part of the study session.
The meeting will be held at 10 a.m. at the school district headquarters at 25 Churchill Ave., Palo Alto.