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In secret, school board weighs not cooperating with federal agency
Original post made
on Jul 12, 2013
Palo Alto Board of Education members and their attorneys have discussed in closed session and in emails how they might challenge the legal authority of the federal Department of Education to impose on the district new policies on bullying and other issues and possibly even to conduct investigations, the Weekly has learned.
==B Related stories:==
• Web Link
- U.S. agency investigates peer sexual harassment at Paly
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- Family files claim against school district
• Web Link
- Editorial: Some PR advice for school district, city
Read the full story here Web Link
posted Friday, July 12, 2013, 9:23 AM
Posted by Edmund Burke,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 14, 2013 at 9:02 am
There are many problems with PAUSD going down the path advocated by Ms. Mitchell of challenging the authority of the federal government.
Mitchell evidently has persuaded PAUSD to challenge not only particular policy recommendations or remedies suggested by OCR (itself bad enough), but the entire authority of the federal government to enter into the sphere of school civil rights. As articulated by her surrogate, "Saw", Ms. Mitchell is questioning "what in that letter [the April 4, 2011 DCL on sexual violence] is consistent with the US Constitution and Congress' Civil Rights Act, which the Board will follow, and what is not," which it presumably will take upon itself to disregard.
Congress delegated to the Department of Education the authority to ensure that recipients of federal funds, which includes PAUSD, comply with the civil rights laws of the United States. (Schools that do not wish to accept federal funds still must comply with certain civil rights mandates, such as those by the US Constitution or Section 1983). This is called a "conditional spending" regime and means that in exchange for federal funding, the districts agree to follow the laws, regulations, and other requirements set by the Office for Civil Rights of the Department.
Under our system of federalism, following these rules and engaging with OCR is optional. If a district does not wish to follow them, it can merely stop receiving the federal funding. Therefore, no district is forced to do anything. It's relationship to DoE and to OCR is entirely voluntary. PAUSD opted into that relationship.
The idea that the Dear Colleague Letter offering guidance on how districts are to implement Title IX violates the Constitution or exceeds statutory authority is specious and is based on a fundamental misconception about the nature of Dear Colleague Letters and what the government calls "significant guidance documents."
The Department of Education has determined that the 4/4/11 DCL on sexual assault is a "significant guidance document." This means that it falls under the Office of Management and Budget's Final Bulletin for Agency Good Guidance Practices. Such documents are issued by OCR "to provide recipients with information to assist them in meeting their obligations, and to provide members of the public with information about their rights under the civil rights laws and implementing regulations" enforced by OCR. Dear Colleague Letters do not add requirements to applicable law, but "provide information and examples to inform recipients about how OCR evaluates whether covered entities are complying with their legal obligations."
Under the OMB Bulletin governing "significant guidance documents (see: Web Link) issued in 2007 under President George W. Bush, guidance such as the DCL are considered essential to the operation of government. Far from condemning such guidance, OMB found that there is "enormous value" in agency guidance documents. "Well-designed guidance documents serve many important or even critical functions in regulatory programs. Agencies may provide helpful guidance to interpret existing law through an interpretive rule or to clarify how they tentatively will treat or enforce a governing legal norm through a policy statement. Guidance documents, used properly, can channel the discretion of agency employees, increase efficiency, and enhance fairness by providing the public clear notice of the line between permissible and impermissible conduct while ensuring equal treatment of similarly situated parties."
In order to ensure uniformity and good practices, OMB prescribed procedures applicable to such guidance documents, including requiring an opportunity for public feedback on such documents. OCR met these requirements with the 4/4/11 DCL and it was lawfully issued as a helpful guidance document designed to ensure that schools understand that sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment. This determination -- that sexual violence, and related bullying -- is a form of sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX is a longstanding holding from court decisions. See, e.g., See, e.g., Jennings v. Univ. of N.C., 444 F.3d 255, 268, 274 n.12 (4th Cir. 2006) (acknowledging that while not an issue in that case, a single incident of sexual assault or rape could be sufficient to raise a jury question about whether a hostile environment exists, and noting that courts look to Title VII cases for guidance in analyzing Title IX sexual harassment claims); Vance v. Spencer Cnty. Pub. Sch. Dist., 231 F.3d 253, 259 n.4 (6th Cir. 2000) ("'[w]ithin the context of Title IX, a student's claim of hostile environment can arise from a single incident'" (quoting Doe v. Sch. Admin. Dist. No. 19, 66 F. Supp. 2d 57, 62 (D. Me. 1999))); Soper v. Hoben,195 F.3d 845, 855 (6th Cir. 1999) (explaining that rape and sexual abuse "obviously qualif[y] as…severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive sexual harassment"); see also Berry v. Chi. Transit Auth., 618 F.3d 688, 692 (7th Cir. 2010) (in the Title VII context, "a single act can create a hostile environment if it is severe enough, and instances of uninvited physical contact with intimate parts of the body are among the most severe types of sexual harassment"); Turner v. Saloon, Ltd.,595 F.3d 679, 686 (7th Cir. 2010) (noting that "'[o]ne instance of conduct that is sufficiently severe may be enough,'" which is "especially true when the touching is of an intimate body part" (quoting Jackson v. Cnty. of Racine,474 F.3d 493, 499 (7th Cir. 2007))); McKinnis v. Crescent Guardian, Inc., 189 F. App'x 307, 310 (5th Cir. 2006) (holding that "'the deliberate and unwanted touching of [a plaintiff's] intimate body parts can constitute severe sexual harassment'" in Title VII cases (quoting Harvill v. Westward Commc'ns, L.L.C., 433 F.3d 428, 436 (5th Cir. 2005))).
Despite the fact that courts have long considered sexual violence and related bullying to be a violation of Title IX in the school context, schools have been slow to implement appropriate policies. Therefore, in 2011, the Department issued a guidance document to assist schools in understanding the law, and the obligations that fall on recipients of federal funding in this regard.
These requirements may in certain instances exceed those imposed by courts in the context of lawsuits for money damages. For example, in a suit for money damages, a district must have actual knowledge of a sexually hostile environment, while OCR requires recipients of federal funding to act when they "know or reasonably should know." In many cases, this will be a distinction without a difference. In the case of PAUSD, the district did have actual knowledge via the Verde articles and the prior disclosures to teachers, counselors, the principal, and other district staff. Another difference is that OCR recommends that districts receiving federal funds use a "preponderance of the evidence" standard rather than a "clear and convincing evidence" standard for making determinations in sexual assault investigations, often another distinction without a difference.
But in every case, the decision about whether or not to follow OCR guidance is voluntary and with the district because the district always has the option to refuse the federal funding and go its own way.
Barbara Mitchell is advocating a third way, easily recognizable to those who have experience with far-right fringe interpretations of the Constitution. That is to assert that these requirements are "unconstitutional conditions" on the grant of federal money and that the district, in being required to comply with Title IX, is being required to do things in exchange for the money, that violate "state's rights" and local control.
Saw articulates this fringe theory when she says that the Dear Colleague Letter "tromps on the constitutional rights of US citizens and reach far beyond what Congress intended when it wrote the Civil Rights Act. Requirements in it that violate the constitution are illegal and would be illegal for school districts to implement and follow."
This is an argument with a long Constitutional history. It was advanced unsuccessfully in the 1920s against the Maternity Act, then against unemployment insurance, farm price supports and other programs of the New Deal in the 1930s. It gained new life when southern states, enraged by the federal government's use of conditional federal funding to enforce school desegregation in the 1960s, argued that it was illegal for the federal government, through OCR, to enforce civil rights laws on funding recipients. Such arguments have been repeatedly rejected by courts however that has not diminished their lustre for far-right fringe theorists.
Recently, of course, some of those far right fringe advocates have gained seats on the Supreme Court and that has breathed new life into the idea that Title IX is a particular problem. Chief Justice Roberts is known to be an enemy of Title IX, for example. Web Link
At their limit, of course, these arguments have been used to attempt to dismantle the entire U.S. Department of Education, a policy goal long on the wish-list of far-right ideologues.
So now the question is, should Palo Alto, California be a hospitable home for such arguments? Should Palo Alto Unified School District go to federal court arguing that it should not have to prevent, remediate, or address sexual assault and bullying based on sexual violence, but it should still be entitled to receive federal education dollars? That is precisely the argument that Barb Mitchell is suggesting, when she asks whether the district has a right to bar the federal government from ensuring that our students' civil rights are protected at school.
Why would we want to advance such an argument? Why would Palo Alto, California wish to become the test case for whether or not OCR guidance interpreting Title IX as requiring sound sexual violence policies somehow violate state's rights, the Tenth Amendment (never mind that the State of California will not agree), local control, or any other principle of right-wing legal theory?
Why we want Palo Alto to stand for the principle that sexual assault is a local issue and the federal government cannot require us to do anything about it, but must continue to give us the money regardless?
What is to gain here for our district? The right to continue to maintain a sexually hostile environment and to not implement sound policies in response to cases of sexual harassment? And how much of local tax dollars should be expended in payments to Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost (Web Link) and their attorneys Chad Graff (Web Link) and Lenore Silverman (Web Link) in an almost certainly fruitless effort to overturn the US Government's authority to protect our female students from sexual harassment?
Once framed in this way it is obvious why this discussion is occurring in secret. The electorate of Palo Alto would not support a quixotic legal campaign in the service of right-wing, Tea Party-inspired quasi-constitutional theories. Nevertheless, that is the theory being advanced under the cover of closed meetings and redacted communications by this school board.
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