Palo Alto school board committee discusses bullying policy revisions | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto school board committee discusses bullying policy revisions

District's two-tiered system, adopted in 2014, comes under question

In the wake of a federal investigation into the bullying of a special-education student in Palo Alto several years ago, the school district adopted a new, two-tiered policy for addressing reports of bullying and discrimination. Now, one trustee has raised concerns about the policy's potential pitfalls, from creating confusion to noncompliance.

The school board's policy review committee on Friday morning discussed the district's bullying policy, which directs all bullying complaints that do not involve legally protected classes such as race, disability or sex, to be handled at the school sites. Complaints that do allege bullying based on a protected status should automatically trigger a district-level investigation, to be handled under the district's separate Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP).

Trustee Ken Dauber, the outgoing chair of the board's policy review committee, said at Friday's meeting that the more elaborate two-tiered system can lead to staff misclassifications of what is or is not discrimination, a concern he voiced at the time the district adopted the policy in 2014. He pointed to a policy from the California School Board Association, which provides guidance to school districts, that "strongly" recommends districts respond to all bullying complaints at the district level under the Uniform Complaint Procedure "to ensure consistent implementation by district staff.

"It is not always easy or possible for staff to know prior to an investigation whether a student was bullied because of his/her actual or perceived membership in a legally protected class," the policy states.

Any report that is found to involve discriminatory bullying would then be handled under the Uniform Compliant Procedure, and nondiscriminatory cases would be resolved through the appropriate disciplinary process, the School Board Association suggests.

Concerns about the district's response to bullying complaints were renewed last month in a case reported by the Palo Alto Weekly in which a former Jordan Middle School special-education student experienced repeated bullying for months, his parents said.

While Superintendent Max McGee and the committee's other board representative, Terry Godfrey, were supportive of the need for policy revision, a district attorney advised against it.

Dora Dome of Oakland-based firm Dora Dome Law described having a single, uniform process for responding to bullying reports as the "easy way out."

"But it's not practical," she said via speaker phone, warning that a potential increase in investigations could be too much for an already overwhelmed staff. In a training for Palo Alto Unified administrators the day before on the Uniform Complaint Procedure, they reported feeling "totally overwhelmed with the level of investigation and detail they have to go through in order to allow a report to be generated," Dome said.

"I don't believe, in my professional opinion, that it's best practice to impose this level of process on any complaint that comes in regardless of content," she said. "I just don't think its practical for any district — not just yours, but any district — to actually do that."

Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA), was similarly concerned that moving to a single process would bring a spike in formal complaints. She urged any revision of the system to include language that encourages early resolution whenever possible.

"Having taught kindergarten, if everything has to go through this UCP, you're going to have a lot of these," she said. "At some point you need to work it out in the classroom, with the families."

Dauber said the "risk" of not properly investigating a bullying case that does involve discrimination, pointing to the most recent case reported in the Weekly, "outweighs" the administrative issues Dome raised, which he called "overblown."

Godfrey, who will become the policy committee's new chair in 2017, said it's time for the district to review the bullying policy it put in place several years ago. She also suggested "calibration training" for staff that provides specific, real-world scenarios and teaches them how to best assess and respond.

Dome said in her experience, it's the norm rather than the exception for districts to neglect the Uniform Complaint Procedure.

"I would be shocked if there's any district in the state that actually does a UCP for every bullying complaint that comes in. As a matter of fact, my experience has been that most districts don't even use UCP in the cases that they are required to," she said.

It's more a question of training, Dome said — making sure there's an established process that staff are familiar with and that there is someone they can consult with when they're unsure about whether something rises to the level of discrimination, thus meriting a district investigation.

Two days before, representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights came to Palo Alto to share initial findings and a draft resolution agreement for two open investigations into multiple reports of sexual harassment at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools. One concern they shared, McGee said, is that the district's UCP policy conflicts with some of the federal agency's own "regulations and expectations." They advised the district to look at the California School Board Association's sample policies on Uniform Complaint Procedure and sexual harassment, which the Office for Civil Rights have vetted, said Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade.

"We will have some work to do on our UCP and we are asking for their help in doing so," McGee said of the Office for Civil Rights.

Dauber also proposed revising the district's very definition of bullying to shift from a discipline-centric focus to one that encourages investigation of incidences that could disrupt a student's educational environment, regardless if they rise to the level of discipline or not.

The district uses California Education Code's definition of bullying: "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 at one or more students that can make them fearful of further harm, harm their physical or mental health or interfere with their education.

Dauber worried that "if we have a definition of bullying that's restricted to conduct that is subject to discipline then we're going to miss some conduct that isn't subject to discipline but that we are actually obligated to respond to and has a negative effect on the education of the target" of the bullying.

He pointed to a definition from national bullying prevention program Olweus, which states that "a person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself." Bullying includes aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions; a pattern of behavior repeated over time; and an imbalance of power or strength, Olweus states.

Dome responded that the Education Code's definition provides legal clarity for when the district can "assert jurisdiction." She advised the district against replacing its definition and to avoid adding language such as "imbalance of power" that might be confused by staff as a requirement for categorizing an incident as bullying.

Sharon Ofek, the district's new chief academic officer for secondary education, said as a longtime middle school administrator, she appreciates the current policy's specificity. Olweus' definition is too broad and "open to individual interpretation," she said.

Godfrey said clarifying the definition is important for all staff, from teachers in classrooms to yard duties monitoring students during recess and lunch.

"I think some of the confusion lies there," she said. "When is this really bullying versus two kids who are on equal footing having a disagreement?"

The board policy review committee will likely take this up in the new year. The committee's next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 26 at 8:30 a.m. at the district office.

In response to the recent bullying case at Jordan, the school board will also discuss the Uniform Complaint Procedure at a special meeting on special education Tuesday, Dec. 13, from 8-10 a.m. at the district office.


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6 people like this
Posted by Be Honest and Trustworthy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2016 at 11:12 am

Administrators are "already overwhelmed" because it's just so darned hard to keep their stories straight when they have lied or behaved unprofessionally. That has led to them even flaunting records laws because they can see no other way to CYA.

The policy should change. The solution to overwhelmed administrators is simple: fire anyone with too great a trail of dishonorable behavior and need for CYA. Hire people with strong moral compasses who are able to be upstanders even in the face of backbiting that inevitably will rise up from the past. Create an environment in which it is safe and desirable to tell the truth and act honorably, and work with families to solve problems. The great thing about being honest is that it's possible to learn from mistakes, and it's much easier because you don't have the exhausting task of figuring out how you screwed some family in the past and how to maintain the ruse.

One of the worst things about dealing with people in this district when there are special needs or problems is that there always seems to be two layers, what they tell you, and this whole other situation going on behind the scenes, probably resulting from bad legal advice, and which I'm sure is quite stressful and exhausting for them to maintain over time, especially when they find themselves having to try really hard not to be confronted with the damage their behavior has done to the kids in their charge. There's a reason in this recent case that the principal was never available to hear the parents' complaints but he was already talking with the district office behind parents' backs and the result was not helping the student. That wasn't an accident, and that wasn't a unique case. Ofek should recognize this, too, if she gets honest with herself. The administrators set things up so that they can first ensure their CYA, or what the lawyers tell them to do, not so they can best serve students, in fact this usually hurts students. It actually increases liability, but the lawyers benefit so they don't say that.

What the lawyer doesn't tell you is that circling the wagons and behaving in a kneejerk defensive way actually backfires and while it may create fewer suits for a time, causes far greater liability when people do sue. (Most people aren't inclined to sue even when things do go wrong which is the other thing lawyers won't tell you because they wouldn't make any money.) So overall, it's better for expensive lawyers to make you fear a suit under every bush, when the reality is that being open, honest, and earnest means overall, liability goes way down, and more importantly for a school district, they actually fulfill their mission and take care of students rather than paying lawyers unnecessary fees and ruining lives for it.

From what I observed, things are better off at the school level if the local people are handling it well. Overlaying the legal stuff only makes people behave badly and hurts students. Escalating to the district office should come from families with help from school employees. In an ideal world, that would help, but the district will have to end its unhealthy legal advice first and get rid of the district employees whose hearts hands and culture are corrupted for following it.

Like this comment
Posted by Roger
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Dec 13, 2016 at 12:23 pm

Be honest and trustworthy.
Perfect example of damned if you do damned if you don't.

7 people like this
Posted by Be Honest and Trustworthy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2016 at 1:35 pm

That's just it, being honest and trustworthy doesn't damn the district, and it helps the district fulfill its mission. Lying hurts families, wastes money, and creates a culture in which district people over and over again actually increase district liability through CYA.

In industry and government, especially healthcare which worries a lot about liability, we find over and over again through research and experience, that owning mistakes and fixing them works better and is much cheaper than cover up. When the bealthcare industry finally really studied malpractice, they found that the rate of people suing even when they had been demonstrably hurt by malpractice, beyond doubt, was actually extremely low, and that at least half the time a suit was motivated by a desire to fix things so it didn't happen again, and a sincere apology and changes averted large payouts. The rest of the time, suits were most often on behalf of a minor who faced a lifetime of medical bills from the damage. In other words, you're only damned by unethical behavior, it turns out being trustworthy and having a culture geared to serving the organization's mission has many benefits including to reducing liability. Again, the lawyers, and any employee who with major CYA issues, don't want us to se that.

The district dodges many liability bullets everyday, not because they don't deserve it or have done anything to avoid it - in fact, they invite these situations and make them worse through the CYA and failure to take responsibility for "mistakes" - but most families are here to help their kids, and lawsuits are stressful and counter to that. Probably even fewer people sue in legitimate wrongs than with malpractice. Given what I have witnessed, it's a lot fewer.

The other problem with a culture of dishonesty, as Wells Farge will probably tell you, is that it leads to other problems. I'm not suggesting this is happening, but graft in school districts is not unheard of - just as Portola Valley - and if someone is intent on siphoning from a major program like special ed, it would start with finding ways to use unsuspecting employees to deny services. It would be easy to continue to portray the program as expensive while siphoning off the difference. Again, I'm not suggesting thus is the case, I'm pointing out that we become vulnerable to such things in a climate that fosters dishonorable behavior and CYA, which we have. The climate (via bad legal advice) even enlists otherwise good people to do dishonorable things, and then they, too, are roped in. All someone has to do is lie and tell them a family threatened to sue, and they'll do what they're told. Even if a family does threaten to sue, research shows that honesty and transparency, working with people, is the best and cheapest way.

So, in regards to being honorable and trustworthy, you're only damned if you don't.

13 people like this
Posted by The REAL Problem
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Dec 13, 2016 at 2:24 pm

The true issue is that teachers, principals and administrators alike don't want to be bothered!

At Jordan alone, there have been cases of teachers literally turning around in the classroom to keep from seeing the incidents they know are happening.

And then, there have been cases of some PE teachers actually aiding and abetting bullying!

Worse, there have been cases in which the children of wealthy people bully and intimidate children of color, mixed race children, special needs and learning impaired children, and even sexually harassing girls. Then, when this is reported to the principal, parents of the victims are told that the bully's parents donate a lot of money to the school, are well-lawyers up and may sue all involved, or (gasp!) worse, may take their child and their money elsewhere!!!

There have to be stiff penalties for bullies, and for teachers, counselors and principals who refuse to acknowledge and report bullying! The parents of bullies should not be allowed to talk, cajole or threaten their child's way out of suspension or expulsion!

For every rich bully the district allows to get away with it, they probably lose 3-4 less wealthy kids to another district or a private school!

5 people like this
Posted by PAmom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 13, 2016 at 5:08 pm

I went through PAUSD as a kid, and I have two kids who went through PAUSD. I had some experiences where the schools acted adversarial towards us while we were trying to act like we were all on the same team solving a problem together. The schools and district sometimes acted as if it's them against the families, and as if it's always the families' fault, saying they or their kid overreacted, or that the scared little kid needs to tell their teacher rather than ask their parents to do it, or that the parents are bad parents, or they say that it's not the teachers' job to discipline kids . . . Any excuse they can come up with to intimidate the families from advocating for their kids and get them (the complaints) to go away.

I also had some experiences where I spoke up for myself or my kids, or they spoke up for themselves, and the schools were wonderfully helpful and compassionate at solving the problem. I'm dismayed that, after the latter experiences, the other teachers and administrators where so dismissive, adversarial, contentious and rude when it would have been just as easy to be helpful and work with us as a team.

I guess the reason for the latter is that some teachers and administrators lack the compassion or moral compass to care about the kids or their families.

6 people like this
Posted by Jordan Mom
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 14, 2016 at 12:02 pm

My kids have been bullied and administration and staff have been helpful. Some parents are creating more snowflake generation kids.

Unfortunately, I have not been impressed with the new principal at Jordan, Katie Kinnaman, or Ms. Cinnamon, as she is called. I don't know her take on bullying issues but I'm not holding my breath for her to be proactive as the past male principals were, based upon her actions so far. She should encourage students to report bullying to admin, and allow it to be anonymous. They s can help the victims.

The Special Ed students have adult aids at lunchtime so they should not be bullied. If my child was Special Ed, I'd have her stay with them at lunch. Abnormal behavior can lead to bullying and my heart goes out to those kids who are unintentionally and unknowingly behaving abnormal. Parents need to teach their children proper social skills.

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