Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 14, 2014

School board adopts harassment policy

Eleven-year-old student returns to testify after testy Jan. 28 exchange

by Chris Kenrick

An 11-year-old Palo Alto student, whose Jan. 28 testimony to the Board of Education was interrupted by the board president because she was off topic, returned to the board Tuesday to tell members that bullying is still a problem in local schools.

The testimony of Angela B. Tuesday came prior to the board's unanimous adoption of new policies governing the harassment of disabled and other minority students.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the policies should satisfy a December 2012 agreement signed with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights in which the district agreed to revamp its procedures for handling complaints of discrimination based on "protected classes" of students, including disability, gender, race and sexual preference.

That agreement followed a December 2012 federal finding that the district's mishandling of a bullying case had violated the civil rights of a disabled student.

But Angela B., a middle school student who was flanked at the podium by six adult supporters, including her mother, said bullying is a problem for students in general, not just kids with disabilities. She recounted her experience of having been bullied on the bus and at school because she is short.

"I'm here to tell you that not only special-ed kids get bullied, and you should protect all kids to stop their suffering right now," Angela said.

Skelly said he'd return to the board by March 25 with a proposal for a district-wide policy on bullying.

The district will post and seek public comment on a draft bullying policy within the next two weeks, he said Thursday.

The district's student service coordinator, Brenda Carrillo, is drawing on policy work going back to 2012 in formulating a new proposal, he said. Carrillo could not immediately be reached for comment.

Skelly and board members said they shared concerns expressed by teachers and principals that extending a "uniform complaint procedure" beyond protected classes of students could have the effect of escalating and creating records on minor playground scuffles.

"If every bump, every cutting in line meant they had to write a report, (school staff) couldn't use those as ways of teaching in the classroom and it possibly could get in the way of teaching other things," board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell said.

"There was a request to us to figure out what the balance is."

The narrower focus on "protected classes" of the policies adopted Tuesday satisfies the district's 2012 agreement with federal enforcers, Skelly said.

Palo Alto resident Andrea Wolf said there had been a lack of transparency about why school district leaders had changed their minds, both on a district-wide bullying policy and on a staff proposal to "de-lane" freshman English at Palo Alto High School, which Skelly withdrew this week (see related story).

"It is impossible for a community member to participate in any meaningful way with this school district and this board of trustees," said Wolf, adding that she had attempted to closely follow both issues but felt they had not been adequately explained.

Though some adult supporters of Angela B. requested that Board President Barb Mitchell apologize for cutting short the girl's Jan. 28 testimony, Angela said Tuesday: "I don't care about an apology or not. ... All I'm suggesting is for you to listen to what children have to say.

"What happened last time wasn't planned for, but I also don't think it started us out on the right foot. Bullying has been going on for a long time, and I feel like you guys haven't done anything about it."

Mitchell, who interrupted Angela's Jan. 28 testimony, saying it was not related to the agenda item at hand, told the girl Tuesday: "Thank you, Angela, and I certainly will apologize if anything I said made you uncomfortable or caught you by surprise. Thank you for coming back and having the courage of speaking."

Earlier in the meeting, Mitchell did apologize more broadly for the duration of the Jan. 28 school board meeting, which adjourned around 2 a.m.

"I completely misestimated the amount of time it would take to cover the questions, interest levels and public comments on subjects that are very important to all of us," she said.

"What happens in that instance is it really does impact the ability of community members and staff members to impact our conversations."

In the future, Mitchell said, she plans mid-meeting time checks to determine whether agenda items need to be rearranged or postponed.

Tuesday's meeting was unusually short, adjourning around 9:30 p.m., well short of the officially targeted time of 10 p.m.

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

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