District moves to correct civil-rights violations | February 22, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 22, 2013

District moves to correct civil-rights violations

Bullied student granted residential placement as second federal investigation surfaces

by Palo Alto Weekly staff

A Palo Alto middle school special-education student whose complaints of bullying and harassment led to a federal civil-rights investigation and a scathing reprimand of the school district received approval last week from the district for placement in a residential facility.

According to the student's family, Superintendent Kevin Skelly personally approved the placement in a meeting Wednesday, Feb. 13, the day after a school board meeting in which he and board members apologized for mishandling the case and heard other parents relate emotional stories about bullying and a lack of response by the district.

Skelly and the district have been on the defensive since the revelation two weeks ago that the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) had conducted a months-long investigation in the fall of 2011 and that Skelly had failed to inform the board of the investigation's conclusions or the settlement agreement he signed on behalf of the district last December. (See article in the Feb. 8 edition of the Weekly.)

Documents show that the investigation was completed and conclusions known to district administrators last April, and then eight months passed before a final settlement was reached with the government. During that period, according to the family, the district repeatedly refused to consider moving the child to a specialized alternative school in spite of a doctor's assessment that returning to the middle school would harm the student.

School board members learned about the Office for Civil Rights conclusions in the case and its criticisms of the school district's handling of the case only after the Weekly article was published.

Formal OCR investigations leading to resolution agreements are quite unusual, according to data provided by the Department of Education in Washington. Nationwide, during the last four years, of more than 1,500 complaints of disability discrimination by school districts only 21 cases, including the bullying case in Palo Alto, were the subject of investigations and resolution agreements. The others either were deemed unfounded or were resolved through informal mediation.

When apologizing to the board at its Feb. 12 meeting, Skelly said he had been "embarrassed" by the findings in the report. He pledged to share such news in the future.

But the next day, after an inquiry from board member Melissa Baten Caswell, Skelly acknowledged there was a second case investigated by the Office for Civil Rights for which he signed a settlement agreement on Sept. 28, 2012.

Skelly then emailed the entire board informing them of the second case and of the settlement agreement.

"I sincerely apologize that, once again, some of you have been taken by surprise by press inquiries involving another OCR case," Skelly wrote.

"My only explanation for why this, and the other OCR resolution agreement on the bully case, were not shared with you immediately is that entering into these is something new for me and my direct reports. We have not had complaint cases go this far in my prior six years at PAUSD — thus, did not see the significance of the resolution agreement being signed since it was part of a lengthy process we continued to be embroiled in," Skelly told the board.

Skelly told the Weekly Wednesday that a discussion of the matter would be on the board of education's public agenda next Tuesday night, Feb. 26. A closed session for Skelly's mid-year performance evaluation is also on the agenda.

The second case involves a sixth-grader who suffers from environmental allergies that make him extremely sensitive to mold, detergents and certain chemicals prevalent in inexpensive cabinets and furniture. According to documents and emails provided to the Weekly by the family, the problem had been successfully managed at the boy's elementary school by the principal and teachers by working with the family and changing the physical environment, including changing cleaning practices, eliminating the use of cleaning detergents and replacing old carpeting.

But the transition to middle school was problematic. Documents show the boy's parents made repeated efforts to plan ahead with school officials to prepare for the transition from elementary to middle school, where the problem would be more challenging due to the movement of students among several different classrooms and the library.

The school agreed to have custodians switch to soap and water for cleaning and conducted tests for mold, but it was not willing to replace carpets or undertake additional environmental tests the family and their doctor requested.

Out of frustration, the family asked for a 504 plan, the formal process by which disabilities are accommodated in public schools. The request was denied, and the parents filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in early August.

The OCR found flaws in the district's handling of the case, concluding the district hadn't conducted a proper evaluation and that its 504 procedures were not in compliance with federal regulations.

The district entered into a settlement agreement on Sept. 28, signed by Skelly, in which it committed to reconsidering the student's case, conducting a proper 504 evaluation process, revising its 504 procedures and submitting them to OCR for review and approval, and carrying out training of principals and other administrators.

Unlike the bullying case, in which the district declined an opportunity to enter into an agreement that would have avoided an investigation, in this case the district opted for a quick resolution.

According to documents provided by the family, in October the district said its new assessment was "inconclusive" as to whether the child qualified for a 504 accommodation or not but granted the child a 504 anyway. The district continues to resist making needed accommodations, which could be done at minimal expense or burden, the family alleges.

Meanwhile, Skelly Thursday released a copy of an Oct. 21, 2011, "Educational Services Weekly" memo by Associate Superintendent Charles Young, which included a paragraph informing the school board that OCR investigators looking into a bullying complaint had been on a middle school campus the previous day. It said interviews had been conducted with 35 students, four teachers, two administrators and one counselor. And he reported that district and union attorneys "felt like it shed only a positive light on the school and our support of students."

The district also released a copy of an email dated April 9, 2012, from Young to the school board marked "confidential" stating that OCR had concluded its investigation into the bullying case and that the district's attorney was "working with the OCR regarding the corrective actions, which are quite lengthy."

The email provided no details of the government's findings, and there was no discussion in public session.

"The District addressed the complaint, but the OCR requested the opportunity to meet with students and staff to investigate the claim, which occurred on Oct. 20, 2011," Young wrote to board members.

"We received the OCR's results over spring break. As a result of the student's disability, we are responsible for correction action related to discrimination and creating a hostile learning environment."

"Part of the plan will include an IEP (Individualized Education Program) team meeting to discuss the findings, the development of a plan for training staff and notifying parents. Once the corrective actions are finalized, I will share them with you so you are aware of the areas we will be addressing," Young's email said.

"I will update you with more information as it becomes available. The staff at (the middle school) will be disappointed as they felt they did a great deal of good work to ameliorate the concerns outlined in the parent's initial complaint."

No updates, at least in public, were provided after the April 9 email. Next Tuesday's board meeting will be the first time the board will discuss the Office for Civil Rights investigation and its findings, except for hearing Skelly's apology at its meeting last week.