Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 8, 2013

Board members want more info on handling of case

School board members say they're reconstructing events but express confidence in staff to 'learn and move forward'

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto school board members this week said they want more information on what went wrong in a 2010-11 middle-school bullying case that led to federal civil-rights findings against the school district.

Even as the district moves to clarify its anti-bullying policy to comply with a resolution agreement reached in December with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, board members in separate interviews Wednesday said they personally are working to reconstruct what happened in the case or have asked school district staff to do so.

"I've pored through hundreds of pages, and I think each board member is doing the same, so we can surface the relevant questions and learn from things we wouldn't normally be involved with at the board level," board Vice President Barb Mitchell said.

All five members stressed they were constrained in fully discussing the Office for Civil Rights findings because of the need to protect the student's confidentiality.

"My hope would be there's a recognition that the whole story isn't public," Mitchell said. "I'd ask people to reserve judgment."

Following an investigation that included interviews with more than 40 students and staff at a Palo Alto campus, the Office for Civil Rights found that the school district violated a student's civil rights by failing to properly investigate and respond to the student's and family's ongoing complaints of bullying.

The bullying was related to the student's disability, which had to do with the student's inability to interpret social cues, the Office for Civil Rights said.

Several board members Wednesday said they would welcome clarification from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on its investigation.

"It'd be great to hear from the OCR," board President Dana Tom said. "We'd love to have the OCR at some level provide some information and context."

Mitchell said that she personally would put in a call to the OCR, asking for assistance.

She disputed, however, whether the investigation of the district's handling of the case could be characterized as "rare," as some parents in the district have alleged.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she considers the Office for Civil Rights report to be the basis for determining what information is needed from the district.

"The board needs to direct staff on fact gathering to see how these things (in the OCR report) came to be, what processes didn't happen and why, and how we can change them so that they will," Caswell said.

Board members reiterated their disappointment that Superintendent Kevin Skelly had not fully informed them earlier about details of the federal investigation and the resolution agreement.

"We didn't know that the report had come in or that the superintendent had signed the agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, and that wasn't good," Caswell said. "It's important for the community to know the process was going on.

"Should we have asked more questions? Yes."

Board member Camille Townsend stressed the need for a policy requiring that only elected board members, not district staff, be authorized to sign agreements with other government agencies.

At a Feb. 26 school board meeting, a school district lawyer and district parents presented clashing perspectives on the handling of the case.

Attorney Laurie Reynolds called the investigation a "very productive, collaborative, fruitful process" ending with the district's agreement to revise its anti-bullying protocols.

But members of the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto charged Reynolds with mischaracterizing the facts and said "letters of finding" by the Office for Civil Rights against a school district are extremely rare.

Board members indicated Wednesday they remain confident in Reynolds' advice and in the district staff's ability to "learn (from the Office for Civil Rights case) and move forward."

"I work from a strengths-based perspective, and for me this is an exciting opportunity for how we can move forward," said board member Heidi Emberling, who was elected in November.

Rather than having different anti-bullying curricula at the 12 elementary schools, Emberling said she thought the programs should "come to alignment so kids have shared language and they can move to middle school and high school. And at those levels those programs should be more standardized."

Nonetheless, Emberling said that she is still expecting information from the school district about its handling of the case so that the board can reflect on what transpired.

"I'd like to see another report now that the district staff is looking into it. They need time to figure out what happened.

"I think reporting back to the board is understood," she said.

Noting Brown Act restrictions on board members talking with one another outside of public meetings, Tom said media coverage of the case has outpaced the board's ability to provide timely responses, since it meets just twice a month.

"When I look at our district I see a lot of staff members working very hard trying to do their honest best," Tom said.

"It's my responsibility to chase down the facts and figure out where I think things land, but what's most important to me is that they learn from what happened and we improve our district.

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