Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 15, 2013

Parents confront school board about bullying

Superintendent apologizes for failing to fully disclose federal report on local case

by Chris Kenrick

Amid tearful recountings by parents of painful school bullying situations, Palo Alto school board members and district Superintendent Kevin Skelly Tuesday night, Feb. 12, apologized and vowed to learn from a recent federal finding that school officials violated the civil rights of a student who was repeatedly bullied.

The outpouring by parents, and a few students, at a Board of Education meeting followed publication last week of federal findings that school officials failed properly to investigate and respond to the ongoing bullying of a Palo Alto middle school special-education student in 2010-11.

It coincided with a staff report on the district's months-long efforts to revise its existing bullying policy, which apparently was not followed in the case described in the federal report, issued in December by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

School board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she was "embarrassed" about the bullying in the federal case.

"I wish this hadn't happened. ... I wish we didn't have this happen to any children at all, not just in our district but anywhere. It's awful to be a person that's targeted."

Caswell said any new procedures should extend beyond keeping track of bullying incidents to circling back with parties later on to see whether the resolution was effective.

Other board members said the bullying stories were "gut-wrenching" and called for better procedures in handling such situations.

"I want to see consistency and I want to see our numbers go down," board member Camille Townsend said.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly apologized to board members for failing earlier to fully and promptly inform them of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) findings and the district's "resolution agreement" with the government.

"When this thing came out I informed you about it, but I didn't give you the report or share the findings of the OCR group, and I should have done that, bottom line," he said.

"I know the effort that was put in there that wasn't captured in the report, but my responsibility was to share it with you and the community and say, 'Hey, we've got an issue, let's go after it.'

"From a transparency issue, I blew it."

Skelly said he was embarrassed by the federal report, which was dated Dec. 26.

In the resolution agreement that Skelly signed and dated Dec. 14, he agreed on behalf of the district to implement voluntary remedial steps in bullying policies and procedures but specified that the district did not admit to any violation of the law.

About 20 community members testified Tuesday night, including a number of parents who told stories of their own children being bullied.

They asked for clearer and more consistent policies throughout the district.

"When I read the article I saw my own family's situation in every word," one mother said, referring to coverage of the report last week in the Palo Alto Weekly, which broke the news.

"I'm hopeful the district will take into account changing policies right now. Earlier it was mentioned the wonderful bullying programs each school has, but I request you provide a universal bullying prevention program to provide consistent language to children so they can all receive the same training and know what to say to each other," the parent said.

Representing its membership of 300 Palo Alto special-education families, the Community Advisory Committee on Special Education called on the district to enact and publicize an anti-harassment policy that includes immediate investigations and clear grievance procedures.

The district should consider hiring an "ombudsperson or parent liaison" to deal with harassment issues or consider using voluntary mediation services offered by the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, committee members told the board.

Another parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, cited the federal findings as a failure of a culture in the district that leaves decision-making to individual schools and called for an independent investigation of what went wrong in the middle school case described in the report.

The group challenged the district's analysis of student survey data that concluded Palo Alto has low bullying rates compared to Santa Clara County as a whole.

Members said Palo Alto's bullying rates are probably about the same as "state and national norms for similar schools."

"This is a total system failure — there's no other way to describe it," said We Can Do Better member Wynn Hausser, a Gunn High School parent. "We don't need to look at how we compare with other districts. The federal government told us how we're doing and it's a failure.

"We need to speak in plain, honest language about what's going on here."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by Wayne Chen, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2013 at 7:36 am

Is there going to be an investigation of this? I can't tell from this story what is going to happen next? How is the school district going to prevent this from happening again? At work when we make a mistake we do a post-mortem where we reconstruct what went wrong and use that to make a plan for how to make sure that it doesn't happen again. That's how we try to get continuous improvement. It's not always very easy because no one likes to air their mistakes publicly but it's not an option to say no.
Thank you.


Posted by Good Question, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2013 at 7:54 am

That's is what some CAC asked the school district to do, but they did not say yes or no. Hopefully in the next meeting when they talk about the subject again, they will give an answer. I believe WCDB also asked for that, but not sure.


Posted by Shameful, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 7:55 am

From some of the articles I have read elsewhere, it was implied that an investigation was being done by the US Dept of Education. Have they recommended Skelly's removal from office?

What about the suicide of the one boy? And the racial, sexual bullying of the one girl? Do these not cry out for Skelly's removal???


Posted by Palo Alto Native, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 8:12 am

As a longtime Palo Alto resident I love our community. It's a very special place, possibly the most special place to live and raise a family. We are very fortunate to have what we have here in Palo Alto. Our community has an unparalleled quality of life. One of the things that is so uniquely lovely is our wonderful schools. Lately, I have been hearing many of our community leaders, including former school board members, members of the City Council, former City Council, and other leaders saying privately that it is time for Dr. Skelly to move on to other opportunities and that this latest incident, involving bullying and particularly an apparent cover-up, is just a bridge too far. The poor child in this case breaks my heart. What if this were my child? Also, attracting the attention of the federal government to our community this way harms our reputation and way of life and threatens what is so special about our town. Sad to say, the current school board seems ill-equipped to oversee Dr. Skelly and inclined to forgive all. If these esteemed community leaders were to say publicly what they are saying privately it could make all the difference in persuading their colleagues on the school board that it is time to make a change. Yes, that could be awkward, I can certainly see that. But aren't our kids worth it? And if, God forbid, something was to happen to another child as a result of bullying, like in Los Gatos, would it be right for our leaders to have said nothing that could have prevented it? Dr. Martin Luther King said that "all that needs to happen for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing." That seems like a good lesson for Palo Alto today.


Posted by Fourth Generation PA, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

Here, here! I couldn't agree more. Time for a change. This is worse than Callen. At least no one was injured or died as a result of her management.


Posted by Skelly fan, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Feb 15, 2013 at 9:04 am

I'm sick of this Skelly-bashing. So what if he didn't tell the school board about this? They're a bunch of ex-PTA types who couldn't run a school district 10% the size of Palo Alto if they had to do it themselves. The same thing happened when Klaussner attacked him publicly about the Brown Act and Gunn or Caswell about that math letter. At least they aren't grandstanding about this one. He needs to be able to run the district without meddling from amateurs. Also, there are over 10k students in the district and a bunch of employees. Is it really news that bad stuff happens sometimes? Come on, people, settle down. This will blow over.


Posted by that's the solution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 15, 2013 at 10:28 am

"We don't need to look at how we compare with other districts..."
That's right, anything that paints the district in a good light needs to be destroyed. Let's ignore the fact that bullying has been reduced across the board in the district by over 50% in the last few years. Even further at the school in questions. Let's ignore the fact bullying rates in the district are far lower then neighboring districts. Let's continue with the poisonous toxic environment that has being created that discourages participation and leave the decisions to special interest groups.


Posted by Special interest, a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 15, 2013 at 10:50 am

I am part of the "special interest group" that thinks we shouldn't have a superintendent who ignores it when little disabled girls are punched in the face. I am part of the special interest group who thinks the superintendent shouldn't hide a federal civil rights investigation and finding from the board. I am part of the special interest group that wants Charles Young to actually do the job of compliance officer that he is paid to do. The cooked books declaring us better than others on bullying come from a staff that we know conceals information so it can't be trusted. If we're so much better than other places why did the federal government find against us. Get out of your bubble.


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

I read about the bullying information from the school district, apparently if you count correctly we have about as much bullying as other districts, which makes sense to me (I guess the district only looked at very frequent bullying, which isn't as common). I like to hear good things about the district but it is important to me that it be accurate. I don't want to worry about whether I am only getting a part of the truth.
The real issue for me is what "Special interest" talks about, what district officers do when bullying does happen. I don't understand why the district didn't do anything until the US government got involved, and I really don't understand why Dr. Skelly didn't tell the school board. A federal investigation and settlement agreement? That seems over the line to me. I disagree with "Skelly fan" because we have a school board so that parents can have input into the schools, and it's not OK to leave them out.
I also think calling parents of kids in special ed a "special interest" is pretty denigrating, they have enough problems without that.


Posted by that's the solution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm

that's the solution is a registered user.

Yes, "Special Interest", indeed you are part of a special interest group that has chosen to focus on a single, albeit horrible, situation in order to use it as a weapon to beat up the board and staff.
Yes, you are part of the special interest group that has failed to look beyond that and see how we can use this opportunity to improve the district and instead, continue to generate a toxic atmosphere that is of no use at all.
Yes, you are part of the special interest group that, rather than being part of the solution, causes discussion to close down and barricades to go up.
Don't take my word for it, read the responses from Teachers, Parents & Staff from your PPR requests (Web Link). Then ask yourself, is the district the better for your participation?


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:21 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

"that's the solution", are you one of the school district officials who was criticized in the US government report? I'm not sure but it seems maybe so. Anyway I don't think that "Special Interest" is saying that they are part of any particular group, they are making fun of the idea that being concerned about this is being a "special interest".
I don't really like the violent language of a "weapon" to "beat up" people, I don't think that helps the conversation. I think that many people believe that improving the district means being honest about what happened, not just sweeping it under the rug. And yes, that may mean some personnel changes but first we have to figure out what happened. When my kids do something wrong, "I'm sorry mom" is nice, but it doesn't end the conversation. And breaking civils rights laws is a lot more serious than what they usually do!


Posted by that's the solution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:37 pm

that's the solution is a registered user.

"Anyway I don't think that "Special Interest" is saying that they are part of any particular group"
No, given the style of writing, I'm pretty sure I know who it is and the motivation behind it. But each to their own interpretation of the posts.

I don't like "violent language", though I didn't use that term, used as a weapon and also agree that we need to be open and honest about what happened and that may mean personnel changes.
This is the sort of discussion we should be having.
Unfortunately the modus operandi of the special interest group has been to use any situation to beat up the district and staff to further their own agendas. This, in turn, has generated a "circle the wagons" response by everyone, not just the board and staff, to their attacks. Making any personnel changes becomes that much more difficult. Likewise, when every word becomes a weapon to be used against you, it becomes that much more difficult to be open and honest.
It is a toxic, poisonous atmosphere that discourages participation.


Posted by that's the solution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:51 pm

that's the solution is a registered user.

BTW in case it wasn't clear and since you asked, I'm not a school district official. However, even if I was, my response wouldn't change. If I screw up, I'll admit it and take the consequences. On the other hand removing people simply to satisfy the horde is an entirely different situation.


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:54 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

I guess you are one of the school district officials then. Let me try talking to you. When you use words like "beat up" and "weapon" it seems like you are trying to say that people who disagree with you are violent. They are not. I am concerned about what is going on for our kids, including mine. I want to know what happened, including why the rules were not followed.
It seems like you are blaming other people for your own mistakes. No one even knew about this case when Dr. Skelly decided to hide it, so how could they be at fault? Is that what he meant when he said that he hid the case because he was embarrassed? Like I tell my own kids, you can't bargain over telling the truth, you just have to tell the truth and accept the consequences. That is the example I try to set for my own kids.
If you are in the district, please tell us what happened and if there are any more cases like this that we don't know about yet.


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 2:59 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

Oh sorry, I missed your answer but I still think you are blaming other people for mistakes that district officials including Dr. Skelly made. If anyone has to go it will be because of the mistakes not because they made people mad or disappointed (but I don't want to keep people who aren't doing the job just to spite other people). First we should hear what happened and that is still secret.


Posted by that's the solution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm

that's the solution is a registered user.

I don't know where you get the sense that I'm blaming anyone but the school district for this situation.
I am blaming certain parties for the toxic atmosphere that has been created, has been on-going and whose motivation really has nothing to do with the current situation.
"When you use words like "beat up" and "weapon" it seems like you are trying to say that people who disagree with you are violent."
This isn't disagreement, this is calling for heads while not known what happened. This vitriol has passed beyond simple disagreement.


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

I don't really understand your point, I'm sorry (and I am really trying). A lot of people are very upset that the school district violated the civil rights of a handicapped child, and that it happened for a long time and involved many school district employees who have a lot of responsibility, and that Dr. Skelly didn't tell the school board. Apparently also the district's own rules were not followed. It probably happened in a lot of other cases too.
Some of those people (probably lots, I don't know, but there's a lot of people on this board) think that it is bad enough so that some people should lose their jobs. I don't know what I think yet to be honest but maybe. That is all based on the information that is already out there in the US government report, plus there is still an explanation.
What is strange or "toxic" about that? It seems like a very reasonable reaction to the facts.
Are you sure that you are not connected to the school district somehow?


Posted by that's the solution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Feb 15, 2013 at 4:28 pm

that's the solution is a registered user.

Let me try to make this simple for you using Wynn's quote from above as an example:
"We don't need to look at how we compare with other districts. The federal government told us how we're doing and it's a failure."
Now, deconstruct the sentences:
#1 "We don't need to look at how we compare with other districts."
The point of this comparison was to understand how Palo Alto is doing. It has no relation to the current specific situation and is dealing with bullying in general. Since Palo Alto is doing well, rather than address the context of the comparison, Wynn then throws out:
#2 "The federal government told us how we're doing and it's a failure.".
This is totally incorrect. The district is doing well in bullying in general as per the data under review. It shows over 50% reduction in the rates in bullying in the last few years and that the district is doing far better than neighboring districts.
Wynn has used the current individual situation as a club to beat the district where it is doing well. This is typical of the behavior of this special interest group and has nothing to do with him being very upset that the school district violated the civil rights of a handicapped child. It is simply seen as an opportunity to push their own agenda.


Posted by Michele Dauber, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 15, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Michele Dauber is a registered user.

@that's the solution: "No, given the style of writing, I'm pretty sure I know who it is and the motivation behind it. But each to their own interpretation of the posts."

Nope, district official, it's not me. That's because there's like a zillion people in PA who think you really crossed a line this time. It might make you feel better to think that there's only a few people who find this an example of just staggering management failure, but actually that view is very widespread. And when I have something to say to you you'll know it since I am not a coward who hides behind fake names.

Now that I am here, however, I'll say this for the district. Only you guys could turn this into a story of how YOU are being bullied, exhibiting no shame whatsoever. The fact is that this case is the literal tip of the iceberg. There is a pattern or practice in PAUSD to ignore disability-based harassment. Everyone but you knows that including the US DoE. The OCR lawyers are scanning their mail for Palo Alto postmarked letters right now, given how the publicity of this case is going to encourage families who see their own situation in the fact pattern to break out of their isolation and silence and come forward. Were you listening on Tuesday night as the families trooped to the microphone to say that this exact thing had happened to them? Do you really not realize that not enforcing your existing policies or denying that you have them means you have made the same mistake in many other cases as well? Do you really not have a lawyer over there to explain to you how this works? Yoohoo Lenore.

Nice try on the PRA link. But the valence on citizen PRAs is probably a little different now in light of the fact that the superintendent just admitted that he didn't disclose this entire incident including a federal investigation's Letter of Finding against the district because he was "embarrassed" and hid it for months (the investigation concluded against the district in April 2012). Yeah, "I blew it on transparency" is probably not the thing to say right before you take off after watchdog groups. Just FYI.

Personally, I think that it was best said by Latoya Baldwin-Clark at the meeting, herself quite well schooled in the law when she said that you don't need to know the law in order to have done the right thing in these cases. You just need a heart.


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

"that's the solution" I think you are being very defensive and blaming others and it's not very helpful. I have to agree with Ms. Dauber that you are probably a district official. I won't spend more time on this except that I mentioned the bullying information in my first post at the top. I watched the board meeting on TV on Tuesday to learn about this issue and there was a speaker who pointed out that the district's bullying data left out a lot of cases, and that really we are pretty similar to other districts when you calculate it right. That's not bad and I'm not trying to beat you up but it's the truth. At least no one from the district contradicted her.
Also I don't know how you can tell why Mr. Hausser was upset. I was upset and I was at home watching TV. Please think again and try to be more openminded about why people are upset from their perspective.


Posted by AE Porter, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 15, 2013 at 5:35 pm

AE Porter is a registered user.

I am not connected to any of the groups so frequently found in these comment sections. I am simply an interested Palo Alto resident whose family has been in Palo Alto since 1924.
The Federal Office of Civil Rights found against the Palo Alto School District. That seems like a HUGE problem. I don't see something like this "blowing over" unless the entire community puts their collective head in the sand and ignores it. PAUSD clearly does some things very very well. However, this particular situation and others that were talked about at this week's school board meeting were not handled well. They were handled so poorly that the Office of Civil Rights found AGAINST the district. There is simply no getting around that hard fact.
To Chris Kenrick and the Palo Alto Weekly: It would be very helpful to the community if you would report how common and/or unusual it is for a school district similar to Palo Alto's to be found in violation of protecting student's civil rights by the Federal Office of Civil Rights. I attended the school board meeting and saw the entire presentation on bullying; in it the district was compared to Santa Clara County as a whole. That comparison is not very helpful to me. It would be more useful to know how we compare to other California communities that have similar average incomes, spend similar amounts of money on their students, and have similar average education levels.
I agree with "Palo Alto Native" above who states that he/she has heard former and current leaders in the community state that it is time for Dr. Skelly to leave. If this is what they truly believe it is time for them to go on record and say so. I would like to see the Weekly interview former School Board members and ask them their opinion of this situation.
What are appropriate grounds for a District Superintendent to be dismissed? I don't have all the facts or know the details of the contract between the School Board and the Superintendent, but it strikes me that deciding NOT to inform the School Board that our district had been investigated by the Federal Office of Civil Rights and found out of compliance was a failure to meet the expectations of this community.


Posted by JLS mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Feb 16, 2013 at 8:16 am

JLS mom of 2 is a registered user.

Thank you AE Porter you said very well what I was trying to get at. Let's get at the facts. I do agree that the Superintendent isn't meeting our expectations and we should find out all of what has happened here.


Posted by big, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 16, 2013 at 10:00 pm

big is a registered user.

I dont know, but I do think that this seems to be turning into a Skelly witch hunt. If you read that memo from the Fed, you can almost imagine its author. There is someone who is there to check the rules, and the rules were not followed, and whose job it is to write up a report making much of this fact.

Really what difference did it make to the child if there was a delay in Skelly reporting it to the board?

Look Skelly is a nice guy. I dont agree with him on a lot of things and would like him to control the high school campuses more, however we could do a lot worse.


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