Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 16, 2014

Bullying guidelines get school-board committee's OK

Policy would cover harassment of students who aren't in legally protected minority classes

by Chris Kenrick and Terri Lobdell

After 18 months of discussion, Palo Alto school board members appear to have reached agreement on a policy outlining steps to resolve bullying disputes.

The board's Policy Review Committee Tuesday approved a draft that will be up for discussion by the full board Tuesday, May 20.

Bullying discussions in Palo Alto boiled over last year after a December 2012 finding by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that the district's mishandling of a long-running bullying case had violated the civil rights of a student with disabilities. While admitting no wrongdoing, the district agreed to adopt new policies as part of a resolution of that case.

In February, the Board of Education met that obligation by passing new policies outlining a district-level procedure for complaints of discriminatory bullying or harassment based on a student's disability, sexual orientation and other legally protected characteristic.

The latest proposal — not required by the federal government — would cover students in "non-protected" classes, meaning those who aren't in specific, legally protected categories.

Complaints from those "non-protected" students would be handled at the school level — as opposed to the district level for protected-status students. The principal would have a deadline of 15 school days to resolve the problem, and families would be able to appeal a principal's decision to the district's student-services coordinator.

Some parents, who had argued for the simplicity of a uniform, district-level complaint procedure for all students, as recommended by the California School Boards Association, appear to have dropped that argument after it met with resistance from principals, Superintendent Kevin Skelly and at least one school board member.

Christina Schmidt, who earlier had advocated for a unified system, said the complaint and investigation procedures outlined in the new policy make it "fuller and richer" than previous versions.

"That said, the execution is key," Schmidt told the committee Tuesday. "We can write a policy that we like ... but it's really about the execution of the policy and the (administrative regulations), and that's what I see here as the next big step for everything."

Another parent at the meeting, Susan Stayn, said the new proposal, though "a step in the right direction," remains insufficient in its protections of children, adding that it is too vague and assigns too much discretion to individual principals.

Policy Review Committee members Heidi Emberling and Camille Townsend appeared satisfied with the investigation steps outlined in the new proposal. The last disagreement between them evaporated when Emberling dropped her preference for a definition of bullying used by educators rather than a definition based on the California Education Code's disciplinary standards, as advocated by lawyer Dora Dome, a consultant to the district.

According to the Education Code, bullying "is defined as any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or by means of an electronic act, and including one or more acts committed by a pupil or group of pupils that constitutes sex harassment, hate violence or creates an intimidating or hostile educational environment, directed toward one or more pupils that has or can be reasonably predicted to have the effect of one or more of the following as per 48900(r):

"(A) Placing a reasonable pupil or pupils in fear of harm to that pupil's or those pupils' person or property.

(B) Causing a reasonable pupil to experience a substantially detrimental effect on his or her physical or mental health.

(C) Causing a reasonable pupil to experience a substantial interference with his or her academic performance.

(D) Causing a reasonable pupil to experience a substantial interference with his or her ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school."

The policy recommended Tuesday was at least the fourth such proposal from Skelly since December 2012.

In other business Tuesday, the committee appeared stymied on a proposed discipline policy that would prohibit teachers from restricting a student's recess time "unless the safety and health of the student or other students are at risk."

The draft was written in response to Emberling's concern about reports she has received from parents that too often recess is taken away as a disciplinary measure against students — particularly special-needs children who have gotten into trouble for behavior that has been misinterpreted. In many of those cases, Emberling said, time to play outside is exactly what the child needs as a way to "reset or regroup."

Dome said the proposal could have unintended consequences, particularly in middle schools and high schools, of prohibiting lunchtime meetings needed to resolve important issues.

Teri Baldwin, president of the teachers union Palo Alto Educators Association, said teachers sometimes need to keep students in from recess to deal with pressing issues.

"Sometimes an incident might happen right before recess and it is an incident that we, as teachers, need to address right away," Baldwin said. "That might be a time where we keep a student in from recess, to speak with them about the incident. It might not have anything to do with their health and safety or the health and safety of other students."

Committee members agreed that the proposed discipline policy needed further vetting and redrafting.

But they easily gave thumbs up to a proposed conduct policy requiring that students' cell phones be turned off during class except when being used for a valid instructional or other school-related purpose as determined by the teacher.

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

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