Palo Alto is one of a handful of districts nationally over the last four years that have been found by OCR to have violated civil rights laws on disability-based harassment of students. The large majority of such complaints are resolved prior to a finding, since districts have the opportunity at any point to make an agreement that ends OCR's investigation. Palo Alto reached an agreement only after a finding of noncompliance with the law.
In the district's disability harassment case, OCR's report detailed systemic problems in the school district's handling of complaints, in protections for children suffering from harassment, and in providing special education services. Since then, several other parent complaints and resolution agreements with OCR have come to light. Most recently, OCR launched a full-scale compliance review into the district's handling of sexual harassment.
At the root of the district's difficulties with OCR is a counterproductive, combative stance toward federal enforcement of civil rights laws. When the initial OCR finding came to light in January, many community members urged the school board to cooperate fully with OCR and to engage in a transparent public process to determine the causes and fixes for the systemic problems uncovered by OCR. Had the district done so, we would now be well on our way to positive changes that would provide better protections for our students.
Instead, school board President Dana Tom and Vice President Barb Mitchell have scheduled no public discussion of the causes for the failures identified by the report in regular board meetings open to the public, save for a presentation by the district's lawyer that the Weekly characterized as "misleading."
At the same time, we know from reports in the Weekly and the Daily Post, and documents released under the Public Records Act, that the school board has met in closed session with the district's lawyers to discuss withdrawing cooperation with OCR's enforcement of civil rights laws in Palo Alto as "overstepping their authority."
Before one such meeting in June, Ms. Mitchell sent a "confidential" memo that was circulated to fellow board members suggesting incorrectly that OCR lacks the legal authority to pursue civil rights violations and is consequently "strong arming policy 'agreements'" like the ones signed by the Palo Alto district. She also asked the district's lawyers to determine whether the district has any "protection from subsequently discovered 'violations' unrelated to the complaint" -- in other words, whether the district could block OCR from looking into civil rights violations involving other children.
Mitchell and Tom also told the Daily Post that the district had refused to allow Department of Education staff to interview students at Duveneck about another complaint of harassment from a parent of a child with a disability.
The school board is choosing a counterproductive and possibly even reckless path in resisting the Office for Civil Rights, one that leaves the most vulnerable students in the district more exposed to violations of their rights. At the most obvious level, findings of civil rights violations increase the legal liability of the district. Moreover, throwing up roadblocks to investigations simply invites more scrutiny.
Another cost, of course, is the thousands of dollars of public money that the board is expending to pay lawyers to question federal civil rights laws, dollars that would be far better spent in the classroom. Rather than pay a growing district legal team to fight against OCR, the district could be accepting free assistance from OCR as to how to improve conditions in our schools for all students.
For our students, particularly those most likely to be harassed or suffer other forms of discrimination, the best outcome would be for the school board and the district to get on with the business of examining how these failures happened and how to prevent them from happening again -- and how to cooperate fully with any OCR investigations in the future.
Shining a light on problems is a necessary first step, whether the issues affect individual students or many of them. Rather than meeting in private to discuss how to impede federal civil rights investigations, school board members should be discussing publicly what lessons the district can learn from the issues OCR has uncovered.
Palo Alto has a reputation as a community that cares about civil rights, and one that strives to welcome and support all children, no matter their race, ethnic origin, gender or disability. We all have an interest in protecting that reputation by living up to it and strengthening it. The OCR findings represent an opportunity to do so that we should not miss.
That means taking several concrete steps. First, the school board should finally initiate a full public accounting for what went wrong in the disability harassment case that led to the OCR findings, how many other children may have had similar experiences, and what changes are necessary to fix it. This can be accomplished with appropriate protections for any confidential student information.
Second, the board should affirm that the district will choose the path of cooperation and collaboration with the federal government on civil rights issues, and cease closed-door discussions about how to resist federal authority.
Finally, the board should reach out to parents of children who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, whether because of disability or other factors, to work towards moving the district towards a more proactive stance in protecting children and responding to issues before they become federal civil rights complaints.
Mr. Tom and Ms. Mitchell, and perhaps other members of the school board, may disagree with these steps. But I hope that they will now decide, with the new school year, that the community deserves the chance to make this decision in public, in a way that promotes transparency and accountability, and that serves the interests of district families.