Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 10, 2014

Skelly reverses position on bullying policies

Palo Alto superintendent recommends against adopting 'optional' policies

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

After saying last month that he favored a single system for handling all school bullying complaints, Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly this week recommended that the district not adopt a bullying policy and instead only approve what is legally required for students who are part of a "protected class."

The school board's Policy Review Committee was scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 10, after the Weekly's print deadline, to review and discuss Skelly's recommendation.

Skelly said the district should go ahead and adopt legally required changes to current policies for those students who are being discriminated against due to their race, disability, gender, sexual preference, or other protected characteristics, but not adopt any policy for all other students.

The district and its lawyers have spent most of the last year developing draft policies for both sets of students.

Skelly said his change of mind came after discussions with teachers and principals, who persuaded him that a single complaint procedure for all students would be impractical.

"We want things to be simple; we want things to be solved at the lowest level," he said Thursday.

"Our principals and staff looked at this, and I'm just not yet comfortable that we have a policy that isn't going to hamstring our system," he added, referring to the idea of sending all complaints to the district office.

Skelly said his recommendations to the Policy Review Committee regarding "protected classes" of students, if adopted, will bring the district into legal compliance with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which found 13 months ago that the district had violated a disabled student's civil rights in its mishandling of a bullying case.

As part of a resolution of that case, the district agreed to revise its bullying policies, and has spent the past year working to do so.

Once the changes required by the Office for Civil Rights regarding protected classes are implemented, "then we can keep working on the optional policies," Skelly said.

At least for now, non-protected students with bullying complaints should seek resolution through teachers and principals and, if not happy with a decision, file a complaint with the district office, Skelly said.

On Dec. 3, at the last and only public meeting of the Policy Review Committee, Skelly recommended a uniform policy that would treat all students alike, using a new district-level "uniform complaint procedure." But two weeks later in a communication to board members, Skelly said after "discussions with principals, district staff and others" he had changed his mind.

This is Skelly's third different recommendation in less than two months. In November, he recommended a two-tier system that created detailed but different procedures for handling bullying complaints depending on whether the student was in a protected class.

Then in December, after criticism of that approach — and to follow the recommendations of the California School Board Association — he urged the single, unified procedure.

Skelly's recommendations to the committee, laid out in a lengthy set of staff materials, offers no clear path for students who have a bullying complaint but are not associated with a protected class.

In a 2012 resolution agreement signed with the office for Civil Rights, Skelly agreed that the district would revise its policies and procedures on bullying, a process that has taken more than a year so far with much discussion but no resolution.

Office for Civil Rights' jurisdiction does not extend beyond cases of discriminatory harassment and bullying to all bullying cases.

The California School Boards Association (CSBA) recommends that districts use "uniform complaint procedures when investigating all bullying incidents" — including those involving non-protected classes of students — "to ensure consistent implementation by district staff."

In the Dec. 3 meeting, the two members of the committee differed on how to handle bullying complaints.

Melissa Baten Caswell said that for the sake of clarity and simplicity all complaints about bullying, whether run-of-the-mill or involving protected classes of students, should be treated the same, using the uniform complaint procedure at the district office.

But Camille Townsend worried that such an approach could lead to undue "formalization" or "criminalization" of minor playground squabbles that are better resolved at the school level.

"The farther away we get from solving disputes in the classroom, the more formal and criminal it gets," Townsend said. "We've all seen cases where someone gets tripped on purpose, or someone gets called a name on purpose. Are we really sending those up to the district office to be handled? Not in my book."

But Caswell worried that a two-tiered complaint process, which elevates the initial level of scrutiny for children in protected classes, could put teachers, principals and playground supervisors in the position of having to make hasty calls, in ambiguous situations, as to why a child is being picked on.

"It's hard to ask those people to look at what's going on when there's a particular confrontation and make the judgment whether it's a protected-class issue," she said.

READ MORE ONLINE

An article about the Jan. 10 Policy Review Committee meeting will be posted on Friday, Jan. 10, on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

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