Feds find 'insufficient evidence' of racial discrimination | June 21, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 21, 2013

Feds find 'insufficient evidence' of racial discrimination

School's search of student for missing $20 didn't violate federal civil rights law

Federal investigators found insufficient evidence to support a conclusion of racial discrimination in the case of a Palo Alto middle school minority student who was searched by school officials in November 2012 after a substitute teacher accused the student of stealing $20 from her purse.

In a letter dated June 14 and released by the school district Tuesday night, June 18, the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said it could not establish a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by a "preponderance of the evidence" after conducting interviews with the student and school staff and reviewing documents provided by the district and the student.

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. In its complaint, the family asserted their child was illegally singled out because of the student's race.

According to documents obtained by the Weekly, the district acknowledged that two minority students were questioned and searched after the teacher said they were the only two who had access to the locked classroom and the purse after the teacher gave them the key to return to retrieve a notebook.

The missing $20 was not found after searches of both students and their school lockers, and neither student was disciplined, according to the documents.

The Office for Civil Rights letter, with extensive redactions made by the school district to protect the privacy of the student, noted that the middle school's administrators had conducted nine searches of students of various races and national origins during the school year.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly reported on the Office for Civil Rights conclusions during his update at the beginning of Tuesday's regular school board meeting.


The Office for Civil Rights letter has been posted at tinyurl.com/PAUSDrace. Read the Weekly's investigative series on Office for Civil Rights investigations of the school district in "Out of the shadows," posted on Palo Alto Online.

— Palo Alto Weekly staff


Posted by But, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2013 at 3:58 pm

This is a relief, but it is hardly something to cheer. Insufficient evidence does not mean there was no evidence in this case, and there should not have been a complaint filed in the first place. Teachers, principals, and administrators should have handled this informally before it even reached official PAUSD complaint or OCR complaint status. That's how it works when we pay teachers 100K, principals 150K, and superintendents almost 300K. What we are getting is performance not meeting expectations. Reform now!

Posted by Palo Verde Parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 19, 2013 at 4:18 pm

How do you know that the accusers even gave the school a chance to respond? My guess is they did not. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Wow, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm

So from the article, my understanding of the case is that a substitute teacher thought that two kids, and only a particular two kids, had opportunity to take $20 from her purse, and insisted they be searched. These facts, and only these facts, were the basis for a civil rights investigation - is that possible? And having found that kids of various nationalities/races had been searched, the claim was not upheld?

Troubling that such a minor incident can trigger such as high profile investigation. Absent a pattern of racial discrimination, it is hard to see why this should be taken up by a federal agency.

Posted by Fairmeadow parent, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 19, 2013 at 4:30 pm

@Palo Verde parent

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online due to reference to a previously deleted comment.]

I think parents are reluctant to go to the federal government and try to get satisfaction locally first.

@Wow - I think it's crazy that a teacher thinking he or she is missing $20 can trigger a physical search of children. Picture what a "search" actually means. School administrators are patting down a child. If that happened to my daughter over someone's $20 that wasn't even missing apparently, I would be beside myself with rage. What are the district's rules about physical searches of students?

Posted by Enough Already, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 19, 2013 at 4:33 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Wow, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm

Wow is a registered user.

"I think it's crazy that a teacher thinking he or she is missing $20 can trigger a physical search of children. Picture what a "search" actually means."

Maybe - I'm not sure what the search was here; do you know? I am also not sure of the standards to conduct one. Apparently searches are not unheard of, as the article mentions that nine were conducted at Terman that year.

But regardless, an incident like this does not seem like the sound basis for a federal investigation, esp. in the absence of a pattern of racial discrimination. Why did it happen?

Posted by Peggy Duncan, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 19, 2013 at 6:03 pm

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

To Wow,
I don't really understand your question. A parent (or parents) of minority students complained that they were subjected to a search at least in part because of their race. The amount missing was minor, and the missing money (if there ever was any) was not found. If they really were physically searched on the basis of their race, that would violate their civil rights.

As to a pattern of racial discrimination, perhaps OCR has formed the opinion that PAUSD does not adequately respect students' civil rights, on the basis of their investigations.

Posted by Frustrated Mom, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 19, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Frustrated Mom is a registered user.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

I agree with "But" the first comment, not having sufficient evidence, does not mean that the district acted in good faith. They never stop to think the detrimental damage that they caused to the two students who were searched, and even more the teasing they went through by other students who knew about the searched. [Portion removed.] Their actions were uncalled for, and they did not think about it because the students were students of color. These are the things that need to stop if Skelly really want to have welcoming schools. To me these are unwelcome school because they only thing on the staff, in this case the substitute teacher and not at the emotional damage that the student will go through by doing the searched.

Posted by Wow, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 19, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Wow is a registered user.

@Peggy Duncan,

A single complaint about a single incident, where the alleged violation of rights was that two students and their lockers were searched, and there were no other consequences - unless there were other facts, not disclosed here, it seems like a very minor basis indeed for a federal investigation. Not sure what about that you don't understand, but that is the basis of my question.

That there was a bullying situation, at another middle school, not racially motivated, that the OCR found was not handled properly, does not seem like a sound basis to launch a federal investigation in this case. Perhaps you are correct in your speculation; or perhaps there are other reasons the OCR sees fit to dig into a case like this.

Posted by Peggy Duncan, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 19, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

To Wow,
I don't think you are appreciating the seriousness of a physical search of a student. A child goes to school, and at some point is called into the office and an adult touches them looking for stolen money, perhaps asks them to partially undress? I'm amazed that the district is conducting physical searches of students' bodies for missing $20 bills. That is already a serious issue. If it was racially motivated, I don't see that as a "minor basis" for an investigation.
I think we will just have to disagree.

Posted by Wow, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Wow is a registered user.

@Peggy Duncan,

As I wrote earlier, I'm not sure what search was conducted here; do you know? But there was no indication in anything that I have read (including now the redacted letter) that the nature of the search of the students (whatever it was) triggered the investigation. Unless the civil rights situation in our nation has improved more than I am aware, it seems the feds would have bigger fish to fry than this.

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Jun 19, 2013 at 7:37 pm

village fool is a registered user.

I think that we can not know about past patterns. Quite possibly, there are previous formally unestablished patterns. Threads dealing with the Achievement Gap, the math teachers letter etc. provided anecdotal evidence to the possibility that such patterns do exist. Past pattern, of which quite likely the victims are more aware.

Posted by Alphonso, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 20, 2013 at 7:16 am

Alphonso is a registered user.

Of course there is some possibility that one or both of the students actually did take the $20 and got away with theft. Would it be better if the schools simply got the police involved and had them do the searching? Give the fact that the school conducted nine searches throughout the year, I wonder how many of the searches were successful?

Posted by Peggy Duncan, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 20, 2013 at 7:45 am

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

Yes, if a school actually believes that a student needs to be physically searched, they should call the police to do it. They should also call the parents.
Why call the police? Two reasons. First, the police are unlikely to think it makes sense to subject a child to a physical search to find a $20 bill that a substitute teacher thinks she may be missing. That would have brought some needed perspective here. Second, the police are presumably trained to do searches.
Why call the parents? Two reasons. First, this is going to be a traumatic event for their child, so they should be notified and present if possible. Second, to give them a chance to object to something that is very likely the wrong thing to do.
To me, this episode is another sign that leaving these kinds of decisions up to school personnel produces bad outcomes in enough cases that the school board should be looking into what is going on here.

Posted by Alphonso, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jun 20, 2013 at 8:40 am

Alphonso is a registered user.


To me, a police investigation would be much more traumatic on the student than a school investigation. When the police show up they are wearing guns and they would bring much more drama to the situation. Further, police would be more likely to send guilty parties to juvenile hall and push the kid into the Criminal Justice System.
A significant problem is that some parents do not want to face the fact that the theft of $20 from a teacher is an important issue. Some of you are doubting the teacher and some are suggesting a $20 theft is not important. Values are important! It is odd that the same people who say searching a kid over $20 is too much are also saying a Federal Investigation of the incident is fine. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by Peggy Duncan, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 20, 2013 at 9:10 am

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

Hi Alphonso,
I suppose that if the police were called to the school they could figure out how to leave their gun in the car, and probably also to come in plain clothes. I actually think that calling the police would cause everyone to realize that searching someone is a serious act that is almost never actually justified. Having school personnel conducting physical searches of children seems like a really bad idea to me.
It sounds like the teacher thought she had $20. Who knows if she did or not? I know that when I can't find $20 I thought I had I don't expect to be able to subject everyone in the vicinity to a search.
Violations of civil rights are an important issue -- or would you say that subjecting minority children to searches based on their race is fine? It seems odd to me that you are OK with physical searches for children over $20, but not with asking a school district some questions to find out if they are violating civil rights. As far as I know, no federal agents came down and patted down Dr. Skelly.

Posted by wmartin46, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jun 27, 2013 at 8:00 am

wmartin46 is a registered user.

> police in school ..

Isn't there a "Resource Officer" assigned to at least one of the schools? There was a recent bump in the City's budget for a second of these people. Why can't they be called in immediately without actually calling 911? Do these officers appear on campus in plain clothes, or in uniform?

I don't think that calling the police over an alleged $20 theft makes a lot of sense. But if there is already a CPA officer on campus--why shouldn't he be involved, if appropriate?

"Resource Officers" are being budgeted at over $160K a year. What do they do for this kind of money?

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