District previews plan to ensure 'safe, welcoming schools' | May 10, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 10, 2013

District previews plan to ensure 'safe, welcoming schools'

High-level committee plus task force would address concerns on bullying

by Chris Kenrick

To consider community concerns about bullying and harassment in local schools, Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly proposed a school-board-level committee as well as a summer task force Tuesday, May 7.

The proposals came in a Board of Education study session in which board members said they welcomed a high-level discussion of bullying and harassment but had reservations about creating a board committee that would meet as often as monthly on the topic.

The new committee and task force were proposed by district staff as part of a "Safe and Welcoming Schools Action Plan," on which the board will be asked to vote May 28.

The initiative would include policies on safe and welcoming schools, making sure all understand behavioral expectations, including cyber-citizenship, and "reinforcing the district's commitment to transparency and inclusion," said student-services coordinator Brenda Carrillo.

It would incorporate existing and prospective programs and partnerships the district has with many organizations working in this area, she said.

The committee, which would also include community members, would serve as a high-level venue for the community to "express observations, concerns and recommendations around these issues," Carrillo said.

The separate task force, made up of teachers and school staff members, would meet over the coming summer to work out the details of the initiative and present recommendations to the board early in the fall, she said.

The district's handling of bullying and disability-based harassment has been a source of community concern since a finding in December by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that a Palo Alto middle school student's civil rights were violated in a disability-based bullying case.

The Office for Civil Rights is now investigating two other complaints against the district, one in a middle school alleging racial discrimination and the other a complaint charging disability-based bullying at Duveneck Elementary School.

Associate Superintendent Charles Young said the district is in the midst of complying with terms of a resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights in the December case. Training sessions have been held and the district is awaiting Office for Civil Rights approval of various documents, including a policy on bullying, that would complete the compliance process, he said.

The new action plan is not part of the Office for Civil Rights compliance but is broader, he said.

Among the lessons administrators have learned from the Office for Civil Rights cases, Young said, are the importance of having a clearly identified "point person" at every school and at the district level concerning bullying and disability-based harassment.

Also, he said, staff training, clear definitions, documentation of incidents and proactive investigations are key.

On Tuesday, board members reacted to the Safe and Welcoming Schools Action Plan, with some suggesting that staff need to better define the function of the board-level committee.

Skelly said, "The basic idea is we need some representatives at the board and places to take people who have concerns — a place to go to that's well-staffed, broadly represented from the schools, that would help us frame these issues."

Board members said it's important to have clear definitions of bullying and disability-based harassment that are commonly understood among students, parents and staff.

Member Melissa Baten Caswell suggested checklists for use by administrators.

"If you check these things then in fact you have disability-based harassment. If you don't check them, you may have harassment but not disability-based."

Caswell also suggested that parents, particularly minority and special-education parents, be included in the summer task force.

Several community members who attended the Tuesday morning session complained that its timing during the workday precluded participation by some parents.

"To set up a meeting in which the working families can't come to talk about something that so directly affects our students puts such a bad face on a district which already looks like they don't care that much, or they're not supporting those members of the community that don't have as many of the resources as many of the members do," Andrea Wolf said.

Several parents in the audience asked that anti-bullying curricula in the district's 12 elementary schools be consistent so that students arrive at middle school with a common background and language to work out problems.

Parent Stacey Ashlund, a member of the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, said it's possible for parents and the district to work together "in a productive and collaborative way, which doesn't necessarily mean filing a lawsuit.

"We want parents to understand how to make things happen in the district without this huge expense and ordeal, federal lawsuits. I really believe and hope we can agree on that and make progress on that this coming school year," Ashlund said.

A recording of the meeting is available on the website of the Midpeninsula Community Media Center, www.midpenmedia.org.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.