New civil-rights complaints filed against Palo Alto district | April 19, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 19, 2013

New civil-rights complaints filed against Palo Alto district

Feds launch inquiries into parents' complaints on disability-based harassment and racial discrimination

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

The Palo Alto Unified School District received notification last week that federal investigators are probing two new cases brought to them by district parents last month, according to the district and confirmed by the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

One of the cases alleges discrimination based on disability and the other alleges discrimination based on race.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the district received letters from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) last Wednesday and he immediately informed school board members.

The letters do not contain details of either complaint, but Skelly said the district is familiar with the disability-based harassment case and has been working with the family for several months to resolve it. Citing privacy concerns, he would not disclose any details, including the age of the student or the name of the school.

But in an email to parents Monday evening, Duveneck Elementary School Principal Chris Grierson disclosed, "We recently received a letter from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) expressing concerns about bullying behavior.

"The OCR was contacted by a parent, and the district received the letter last week."

Grierson said he is "working closely with the district administration to cooperate fully with the OCR" and intends to "offer a thorough and thoughtful examination of this matter."

Urging parents not to be alarmed by Office for Civil Rights' interest, Grierson said, "As I see it, the OCR is addressing a national rally cry on the issue of bullying. The district and our school are working cooperatively with OCR, and I am confident that we will be a model for collaborative and positive student-focused discussions and solutions to an issue of critical importance in our children's lives."

In a statement last Friday, April 12, Skelly stated, "The district is committed to providing a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students.

"District and site staff have been working diligently with the family for some time on issues related to their sense of safety for their student. Staff will continue to do so. On the topic of student safety, we never cross a finish line, our work is constant, and we are dedicated to continuous improvement."

The new complaints come as the district is in the process of carrying out terms of a "resolution agreement" in a separate bullying case dating back to 2011 involving a special-education middle school student.

In that case, the Office for Civil Rights conducted an extensive investigation, including on-site interviews of more than 30 students, teachers and administrators. It issued findings that the district had violated federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to respond properly and stop the bullying behavior, allowing a hostile environment that interfered with the student's rights to an education.

Skelly entered into the resolution agreement on behalf of the district last December that admitted no violations of law but pledged to undertake trainings, adopt new policies and procedures, modify handbooks and communicate with students, parents and staff as specified by the Office for Civil Rights. He failed to inform the school board or public about the findings and agreement until the Weekly published details about the case provided by the family.

Some of the required trainings have already taken place, and the district is awaiting feedback from the Office for Civil Rights on new draft policies on bullying, discrimination and harassment. The student received a placement in a special school five days after the story was published.

As long as complaints are filed in a timely manner and pertain to federal civil-rights laws enforced by the Office for Civil Rights, an investigation will be conducted to determine if any violations of law occurred. According to the federal letter to the district, "Opening allegations for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits."

Under Office for Civil Rights policies, if an investigation concludes the district was out of compliance with civil-rights laws, the district has an opportunity to resolve the matter by negotiating a resolution agreement prior to formal findings being issued by the government.

In the new disability harassment case, the Office for Civil Rights has requested the district turn over a large number of documents, including notes from all conversations and meetings and emails with the family, all complaints made by other families at the school, student and staff rosters, attendance records, transcripts and a description of the process school administrators are supposed to use to investigate disability harassment complaints. The request asks the district to reply by April 25.

In the other case, the Office for Civil Rights' notification letter to the district indicates a data request would be forthcoming.


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