Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 15, 2013

School lawyer: 'We are not rehashing this any more'

District's attorney calls discussion of bullying case 'tiresome, distracting, unproductive'

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

Calling the controversy over a federal civil-rights investigation a "tiresome, distracting and an unproductive loop," the attorney for the Palo Alto school district has advised her clients to "send the message that we are moving forward."

Attorney Laurie Reynolds, a partner with the Oakland law firm of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost, made her suggestions in an email to Superintendent Kevin Skelly on Feb. 28 after repeated attempts by the Weekly to contact her for additional information after her Feb. 26 presentation were rebuffed.

Skelly forwarded her advice to each of the five school-board members. The Weekly obtained the email through a Public Records Act request.

"I've been rolling around in my head how we break free of this tiresome, distracting and unproductive loop," Reynolds emailed Skelly.

"I'd like to see the district send the message that we are moving forward. We are focused on the important work of developing policies, conducting training and providing necessary education. We are not rehashing this any more; we won't let it distract us from this important work," Reynolds wrote.

School board President Dana Tom and Vice President Barbara Mitchell appeared to follow Reynolds' advice with the publication last Friday, March 8, of a guest opinion piece in the Weekly.

Reynolds' email was sent to Skelly as the Weekly was attempting to obtain clarification from her on several assertions she made at the board meeting that were in conflict with documents related to the case of a middle school student who had been repeatedly bullied.

After four efforts to reach her after the meeting by phone and email, receive a reply Weekly publisher Bill Johnson, "It is our firm's practice not to speak with reporters on behalf of clients or regarding client matters."

In the only public presentation on the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) inquiry into the school district's handling of the bullying case, Reynolds told the board Feb. 26 the district offered to do substantially more training and other actions than the Office for Civil Rights had initially requested.

She said when the district received the first draft last April of the Office for Civil Rights' list of remedial actions it wanted taken, the district responded by saying they were "great" but wanted to do more than what was being asked. According to Reynolds, "It was kind of an amusing moment," she said. "They were stone silent. They said 'Wow! OK.'"

Reynolds explained to the board that the Office for Civil Rights only wanted training done at the one middle school the victim of bullying had been enrolled, but that the district wanted to do it at all district schools.

But in the first draft of the agreement, the Office for Civil Rights' original language was "The District will provide annual mandatory training on disability-based harassment to all middle and high school site administrators and teaching staff. OCR is available to provide the first training."

The final agreement signed in December, reflecting the enhancements Reynolds described, stated "The District will provide mandatory training on disability-based harassment to all school site administrators in the District. OCR is available to provide the first training."

It continued: "District site administrators will then train the teachers at their school sites within the first three months of the school year."

It added elementary school principals to those being trained but removed the requirement for annual training and for the immediate and formal training of teachers. Neither agreement was limited to the one middle school as Reynolds asserted twice in her comments to the board.

District administrators who were present at the meeting and familiar with the original draft offered no correction to Reynolds' comments.

The final agreement also reduced the requirements from mandating annual age-appropriate instruction on disability harassment to requiring it for only the next three years.

Reynolds also left the public with the impression that the district had no ability to settle the case with the Office for Civil Rights prior to the OCR's issuance of a report on the case because the family of the bullied student wouldn't agree to a process called Early Complaint Resolution, which is available when a complaint is first received.

In fact, Office for Civil Rights rules clearly state that at any time during an investigation, the district can opt to enter into a resolution agreement and avoid formal and possible damaging legal findings.

The district's failure to seek such an outcome could be costly because the findings of non-compliance with federal law can now be used in litigation against the district.

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