After spending more than a year working with expensive attorneys and two government agencies to develop uniform bullying policies for the Palo Alto school district, Superintendent Kevin Skelly has now reversed his recommendation that all complaints of bullying be handled consistently through a district-level process.
It is exactly the opposite course from what he urged a month ago, which itself was different than what he recommended in November.
The latest proposal--to not adopt any district policy at all on how complaints of non-discriminatory bullying should be handled--appears designed to maintain the current decentralized and inconsistent approach where every principal decides how to address bullying problems and where there is no prescribed district policy for review or appeal. It is a foolish and irresponsible approach that deprives district parents of clear and consistent guidelines, procedures and rights and puts principals in an untenable and legally vulnerable position. (See Nov. 15 editorial, "Elusive bullying policies." )
The approach also goes against the strong recommendation of the California School Board Association (CSBA), a trade association whose recommended policies Skelly has repeatedly said he wants to be aligned with, or "tethered" to for comfort.
The law requires that all complaints of discriminatory harassment or bullying (based on race, gender, disability, sexual preference, religion, etc.) be handled at the district level through a carefully designed process. But there is no legal requirement on how school districts must respond to bullying complaints of other students.
In December, after hearing strong objections to his first recommendation that the district adopt a two-tier system where there is a prescribed system for site-based handling of the non-discriminatory bullying complaints but district-level treatment of discriminatory bullying, he reversed himself and suggested instead that the board follow the CSBA recommendations and handle all bullying complaints the same, at the district office.
And now Superintendent Skelly wants to postpone the adoption of any policy on non-discriminatory bullying complaints. That would leave it up to each school site to determine its policies and procedures about bullying, or even whether to have them at all.
Skelly told the Weekly that after talking with principals, teachers and others in December, he decided it wasn't "practical" to address all bullying complaints (or as he put it "every single issue that arises around two kids not being nice to each other") at the district level, even though the district has consistently said that bullying is not a significant problem in Palo Alto. If a parent isn't happy with the way a school principal deals with a bullying complaint, Skelly said they can file a complaint against the principal and the district will then investigate.
The idea that any school yard argument would need to be investigated by district staff is ludicrous, as is the notion that a parent would file a complaint about their child's principal.
What parents want and deserve is a clearly written uniform policy that defines bullying and the procedures that will be used to investigate complaints of bullying. Skelly's proposal would leave parents with neither, unless their child was in a legally-protected group.
The latest recommendations were set to be considered by the board's Policy Review Committee, which includes trustees Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend at a meeting Friday morning (Jan. 10), after which they would go to the full board later in the month.
The long saga of developing legally compliant and clear policies for handling bullying complaints has not only drained tens of thousands of dollars in district legal fees, but it has consumed countless hours of staff and board time for more than a year.
In the summer of 2012 Skelly hired Brenda Carrillo, an expert on school bullying policies, from the county Office of Education, and charged her with working with principals and others to clean up the disparate approaches to handling bullying complaints and drafting policies that would bring the district into compliance with state and federal laws.
Although it was being kept secret from the public, Skelly knew then what the public would discover several months later: that the district was about to be hit with alarming findings from a federal civil rights investigation about how poorly it had handled the ongoing bullying of a disabled Terman middle school student. And he knew the district would be required to overhaul its inadequate policies and procedures and bring them into legal compliance under a "resolution agreement" with the Department of Education.
News of the federal investigation's conclusions became public only when the victim's family brought its story to the Weekly a year ago, and then Skelly, the board and its attorneys took over the work done by Carrillo and have spent the last year working on new policies, almost entirely behind closed doors and without a single public discussion at a board meeting. For that alone, they deserve the harshest of criticism.
Even now, the public would have to scour the district website to find any mention of the policy committee's meetings or the new proposal. They are buried at the bottom of a page listing the committee assignments for board members, instead of where notices of board meetings and packets are always posted, under "meetings and materials."
It is almost beyond belief that after all the work that has gone into finally finishing the drafting of strong new bullying policies, including a long wait while state and federal agencies reviewed them and gave their approval, that the district would now put them aside and take no action.
Developing policies is not easy, but neither is it brain surgery. It requires competence, good intentions and clear, public communications. Skelly, his lieutenants and the board deserve a failing grade on all three. The district's blundering, confusion and astonishing lack of transparency is inflicting further harm on the very reputation it is so desperately trying to protect.
Editor's note: Since the meeting referenced in this editorial is taking place Friday morning, after the print edition of the Palo Alto Weekly went to press, this editorial is only appearing online.