Superintendent Don Austin said a series of actions to address the issue would be announced as soon as this Friday.
The teachers spoke emotionally about the recent incident.
"Now that we have your attention, the district must unequivocally declare it has zero tolerance for violence by committing to pass policies that remove anyone who attacks a staff member or student. That is a promise worth making. The community is watching. So are we," Palo Alto High School teacher Daniel Nguyen said.
Another teacher who said she has children in Palo Alto Unified appealed for assistance from the district.
"Behavior has been tough for us as teachers. It has kind of gotten away from us, and we need help. It's not because we're not doing our best. It's not because we don't fight for our babies every day. We do, and we're failing," she said.
"We're failing to teach them properly in reading. We're failing to teach our most struggling kids in math because we are chasing behaviors by ourselves. We're being asked to be therapists, teachers, administrators, behavior analysts — everything on our own, isolated in our classrooms, and we can't do it," she said while in tears. "It breaks our hearts. ... We're asking you all, each and every one of you, to really look deeply at this issue and step forward in a new way."
The incident at JLS Middle School
The incident at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School campus occurred the morning of May 5 during a class, according to Palo Alto police Capt. James Reifschneider.
A staff member in her 30s reported a male student struck her in the head with a folding chair and kicked her in the stomach and hip. She reportedly sustained a concussion, a bump on her head, and back and hip pain and other subsequent serious injuries resulting from the attack.
A staff member in her 20s reported that the student punched her in the face multiple times and also bit her on the arm. She sustained bruising to her arm and facial pain. According to the student's parents, he sustained swelling, scratches, bruising, and pain to one arm. Reifschneider said.
The female staff members sought treatment at a local hospital following the incident.
School administrators notified police on May 5 at 3:15 p.m. of the battery, and officers took an informational report.
A person familiar with the student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the student has autism and that the school had a behavior plan for him. In addition to the initial swelling and bruising, the student is receiving ongoing medical treatment for muscle and nerve injuries as well as trauma and anxiety, the person said.
Due to the age of the student, who is under 12 years of age, and the crimes alleged, no criminal charges are allowed under state law. California Welfare and Institutions Code 602 governs the limited circumstances when juveniles may be subjected to criminal prosecution, based on age, he said.
Children under age 12 are not prosecuted in state court except for certain crimes such as murder and certain sex offenses. Instead, counties use community-based services to address issues regarding incidents related to the youngest children, according to a legal analysis.
Austin said during Tuesday's board meeting that he couldn't enter into details regarding the incident for privacy reasons. He cautioned that while some information being passed around is accurate, some is inaccurate or only partially correct.
On Wednesday, Austin said in a text message to the Palo Alto Weekly that he wouldn't comment on personnel or student issues. But due to the amount of misinformation and conjecture, he did say that the teacher who was hit was not administratively placed on leave and was not reprimanded.
The district plans a third-party investigation
Changes around how student behavior is handled by the district, including bringing in a third party to examine the district's systems, could be forthcoming. Austin said Tuesday he has pulled his team together to review comments and requests, including those from his meeting with the district's three associations. The administration is working to implement many of the recommendations and expects to announce a series of actions as soon as this Friday, May 26.
Those actions include: an unprecedented investment in behavior support positions at every level, professional development for all staff members, additional programs on sites, a parent-education program and calendar, and work around digital citizenship, and adoption of a consistent elementary social-emotional learning (SEL) program, he said. All would be ready by the board's June 6 meeting.
"I want to acknowledge the impact these incidents have had on our staff and assure you that the well-being of our staff is a top priority. Earlier today, I met with our three association presidents as part of our ongoing efforts to address student behavior issues. Today, we spent quite a bit of time together. We agreed that a third-party investigation is important," Austin said.
The investigation would begin around June 9, and although the timing coincides with summer break, he said the investigation would continue when staff returns.
"The intent of the third party is to look at every part of the system — not to find fault and blame — but to make us better. And when I mean every part of the system, I mean every part of the system," Austin said. "While transparency is important, we must also respect the privacy of those involved including the staff and students. We kindly ask for your cooperation in approaching this matter with understanding and sensitivity. I assure you, your voices will be heard."
Also on Tuesday, the Elementary Behavior Supports Ad Hoc Committee presented its recommendations to the school board. The committee included district administrators and staff, behavior-intervention members, teachers, parents, Palo Alto Educators Association President Teri Baldwin and the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education in Palo Alto (CAC).
"Over the past five years, there's been an increase in elementary student behavioral concerns, referrals to our behavior support team and requests for functional behavior assessments and behavior intervention plans," said Amanda Boyce, district director of special education.
The committee recommended assigning a behavior intervention coach to each elementary school site — eight new positions. The recommendations also include developing consistent social emotional learning programs and behavioral intervention strategies, access and support for all students from the behavioral team, and continued, more intensive support and direct service from the behavioral team for students with the most severe behavioral needs. Other recommendations include improved tracking of student behavior, ongoing staff training, parent education regarding how to support a child with needs and building consistent communication between home and school when behavioral incidents occur.
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