The Palo Alto school board adopted a policy on Tuesday that attempts to treat all bullying complaints through a single procedure, removing the district's two-tiered process that specified different courses of action for discriminatory harassment, which could be aimed at someone's race, religion or disability, and all other types of bullying.
But the effect of this revision is unclear as the policy outlines practices specific only to discriminatory bullying, which involve cases against legally protected classes such as gender.
Previously, only complaints involving protected classes were directed to a separate district-level process known as the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP). The UCP establishes explicit timelines for reporting, investigating and resolving a complaint of discriminatory behavior. For example, a complaint reported to a school had to be forwarded to the district's compliance officer within two days and investigated and resolved within 60 calendar days of receiving the complaint.
In contrast, incidents not involving protected statuses — for example, the bullying of someone about their weight — were relegated to school or site-level personnel, with no established timelines for investigation or resolution.
With the approval from the school board on Tuesday evening, both types of bullying are now required to go through the UCP as outlined in district policy 1312.3 AR, which was last revised in August 2018.
Based on recommendations from the California School Board Association, the updated policy strikes language that directs only discriminatory bullying to the Uniform Complaint Procedure in order to "ensure consistent implementation" by district and school staff.
When the district first adopted the dual processes for discriminatory and nondiscriminatory incidents, it was criticized as being unnecessarily confusing, so theoretically, Tuesday's revision should streamline the process if every type of bullying is given the same set of timelines and procedures toward resolution. But as of Tuesday, existing administrative regulation 1312.3 doesn't address steps for resolving bullying incidents outside of unlawful discrimination or other violations of state and federal laws.
Instead, the newly adopted board policy addresses nondiscriminatory bullying in one sentence and with no specifics: "If, during the investigation, it is determined that a complaint is about nondiscriminatory bullying, the principal or designee shall inform the complainant and shall take all necessary actions to resolve the complaint."
Time limits and processes for discriminatory behavior are still outlined: 60 days to review a complaint; a statute of limitations for reporting "discriminatory harassment, intimidation or bullying;" and a deadline to appeal the district's resolution to the California Department of Education. But those same procedures aren't explicitly applied to other types of bullying.
Palo Alto Unified underwent years of investigation by the federal Office for Civil Rights, starting in 2011, over its inability to curb bullying at its schools, which was prompted by a lawsuit. In addition to complying with a a settlement agreement, the district completely overhauled its bullying policy, which has gone through several modifications over the years — one most notably in 2014. That year in March, the district's Board Policy Review Committee discussed a proposal that directed unlawful discriminatory actions to be investigated at the district level and go through the Uniform Complaint process, while leaving nonprotected class-related or nondiscriminatory complaints to school-level personnel.
At the time, there was also no timeline for completing an investigation into nondiscriminatory complaints. With the new policy revisions, roughly the same level of open-endedness for dealing with those incidents remains, raising the question of what exactly is changed when the district funnels both types of bullying to the UCP.
Bullying remains a consistent issue to be addressed at the district, though complaints of discriminiation have decreased in the past year, most likely due to distant learning that has taken place during the pandemic.
In the 2019-20 school year, the district received 86 reports of discrimination. That number decreased to 61 for the 2020-21 school year, and in both years, not every report includes a filed formal complaint.
In other business, the school board approved a change to Superintendent Don Austin's employment agreement that will automatically extend his four-year contract by another year "if the superintendent receives a satisfactory evaluation" from the board. Austin was hired in 2018. Prior amendments to his contract extended his employment to three- and four-year terms, the board approving the latter in November. This amendment supersedes the prior amendments. Austin receives a base salary of $309,000.