Emails from parents at all hours of the night, administrators yelling at teachers in meetings, parents showing up unannounced to classrooms — the president of the Palo Alto teachers' union hopes that a new civility policy she has proposed will help address these and other issues in the school district.
At the school board's policy-review committee meeting Wednesday morning, Palo Alto Educators Association President Teri Baldwin said she hopes a policy would minimize inappropriate conduct among teachers, administrators and parents.
"We do have teachers who have complained that they're getting emailed constantly by some parents at all hours of the night, sometimes very harshly, (and) teachers being yelled at in meetings and administrators not stopping the meeting," Baldwin said. "It gets a bit hard to do your job when you're ... getting verbally abused sometimes."
When asked by the Weekly, Baldwin said she does not know how frequently these kinds of incidences occur. She estimated she was made aware of about eight "extreme" cases in the last two years.
Baldwin first raised the issue with the policy-review committee in March. The California School Board Association, whose many sample policies the school district frequently draws from, does not have a civility policy, but some school districts have created their own.
The Los Altos School District's civility policy, adopted in 2007, seeks to promote "mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct among district employees, parents and the public.
"This policy is not intended to deprive any person of his/her right to freedom of expression but only to maintain, to the extent possible and reasonable, a safe, harassment-free workplace for our students and staff," the Los Altos policy states. "In the interest of presenting district employees as positive role models to the children of this district, as well as the community, the Los Altos School District encourages positive communication and discourages volatile, hostile or aggressive actions. The district seeks public cooperation with this endeavor."
The policy states the obvious about inappropriate conduct — that individuals who disrupt school or office operations, threaten the safety of students or staff in some way, use loud and/or offensive language or repeatedly enter a campus without authorization will be asked to leave school property.
But it goes further, also applying to any individual who "harasses staff with frequent and abusive emails" or "speaks in a demanding, loud, insulting and/or demeaning manner." Behaviors defined as "unacceptable" include "rude, insulting or demeaning language and/or actions," "persistently unreasonable demands" and "displays of temper," among others.
The Los Altos policy also includes a "civility incident report" form for staff to file in these situations.
Stephen Schmidt, the Palo Alto Unified committee's parent representative, questioned the subjectivity of this language and its implications for parental free speech.
"If I'm a parent and I'm not getting what I want, of course I'm going to be demanding, but that doesn't mean that I'm wrong to be demanding," he said.
At the March meeting, Schmidt said the policy amounted to "legislating good behavior."
Los Altos School District Superintendent Jeffrey Baier said staff there use the policy "infrequently." He did not know what drove its adoption.
"Civility policies are usually put in place to ensure that there's appropriate discourse between everybody ... to keep our focus on the fact that we're here to educate children and model appropriate behavior for them," he told the Weekly.
Palo Alto Unified found the Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach school districts as well as a district in Virginia have adopted similar policies.
Several other California school districts including Capistrano, Irvine, Fresno, Palmdale, Culver City and Newport Beach also have civility policies. Many of them state that "staff will treat parents and other members of the public with respect and will expect the same in return."
The Laguna Beach Unified School District policy, which was adopted in 2000, states, "It is paramount that district employees be able to serve all students equitably, without undue time demands that detract from their focus on student learning." It notes that the policy applies to personal and electronic interactions, social media and telephone calls.
Lana Conaway, Palo Alto Unified's new assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives and operations, said Wednesday that a policy will help staff responding to uncivil incidents, though she noted that California Penal Code and Education Code already regulates campus disruptions, threats and safety.
"I think we need to have teeth, and a policy is the only thing that's going to give us the real teeth that we need to address this proactively," Conaway said.
Existing district policy on professional standards does cover district employees' behavior but does not extend to parents or community members or to communication from them, she said.
Board President Terry Godfrey, who chairs the policy committee, said she would prefer to rely on existing policy and law rather than "create a whole new system."
"I just don't think staff necessarily feel supported by policy," Conaway responded.