The Palo Alto Unified School district's mishandling of a middle-school student's long struggle against bullying violated federal anti-discrimination laws and requires remedial actions, a government investigation has concluded.
Failure to control the bullying, which was related to the student's disability, created a "hostile environment," rising above a social or discipline problem to become a civil-rights issue, investigators from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights concluded.
Avoiding possible legal enforcement action by the government, Superintendent Kevin Skelly entered into a "resolution agreement" in December that admitted no violations of law but pledged to undertake trainings, adopt new policies and procedures, modify handbooks and communicate with students, parents and staff between now and June as specified in detail by the Office for Civil Rights.
"We want to do the best job we can with our students, and the Office for Civil Rights has given us some suggestions around that and these are things we'll do," Skelly said this week.
"There are some conversations with students we need to have, some communications with parents and administrative training that we'll do."
In a written statement, the student's family said, "We are very thankful that the Office for Civil Rights agreed to investigate the case," which followed a complaint made by the student's family.
"We had so many mixed feelings when we read the report: happiness because the truth came out, sadness, frustration and pain because it was like living the experience again.
"The reason for making this public is because there might be many more students going through the same thing but might not be able to ask for help, or if they do, they might not be listened to. These children will also get benefit from the result of this investigation and agreement."
The bullied student was in special education with a speech-and-language impairment that affected the student's social skills and ability to interpret social cues, according to a school resource specialist quoted in the report.
The student and family persistently complained that the student was called "stupid," "slow," "annoying" "gross" and "retarded," teased and felt physically in danger. The student also developed mental health issues.
The situation became so serious that the family eventually decided to keep the student home after a doctor advised against going to school as long as the bullying was continuing.
Rather than conducting an organized and far-reaching investigation into the ongoing bullying, the school handled the complaints on a piecemeal basis, which was "not effective in stopping the harassment," said federal investigators, who interviewed students, teachers, school counselors and administrators.
When difficulties occurred, the student and peers would be brought to the counselor for conflict resolution, typically ending in an agreement that the "students should avoid each other or leave each other alone," the report said.
The school also offered social-skills counseling to the student who was being harassed.
While the school cannot be held responsible for the bullying itself, the report said the district's inadequate response to it after repeated complaints amounted to a violation of the student's civil rights.
Among the conclusions of the report:
Despite repeated, detailed and persistent appeals by the student and the family, the school district "did not conduct any organized inquiry into the reports of harassment."
The district "did not conduct a thorough and impartial investigation of the incidents. It did not take any disciplinary action towards students who engaged in the harassment."
"None of the teaching staff at the school could definitively recall having been asked by the district or school administrators if they knew anything about the student being bullied or told about the bullying reports they had received from the family or from the Superintendent's Office."
The district "failed to respond promptly and effectively to notice that the student was being subjected to peer harassment based on disability. The response was not reasonably calculated to end the harassment, prevent it from recurring or eliminate the effects of the hostile environment on the student."
The district's special-education office told the school principal that it would not furnish an aide for the student during lunch (when bullying occurred), stating that this was the school's responsibility and outside the scope of the student's individual-education plan.
School officials showed "a lack of understanding that harassment of a student based on behaviors that are the product of a disability is a matter of discrimination, and a lack of understanding of what constitutes a hostile environment."
The report said each school staff member "was left to her own devices as to how best to respond to the information each received.
"There was no single staff member or administrator designated to investigate and gather information. No structured approach was taken to interviewing students. Records were not kept of interviews with the student or the other students accused of harassment."
Investigators faulted school officials for failing to interview "other students who were witnesses of the harassment or compile the information about the reports of harassment over the period of several months."
In their own interviews, investigators said many of the students reported having attended "social kindness" or cyberbullying trainings offered by the school. None of the students reported having had any training about interacting with or relating to students with disabilities," the report said.
While several students said students with disabilities were treated like "normal" students, others said students with disabilities were "weird," talked to themselves and were perceived as disruptive in class.
"Others in the group highlighted students with disabilities who read slowly, saying that those students were wasting class time," the report stated.
In the settlement agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, Skelly pledged to review the complaining student's individualized-educational program and to establish reporting protocols for possible future harassment as well as to overhaul the district's training programs regarding complaints of discrimination based on disability.
This spring, the Office for Civil Rights will provide the first session of "mandatory training on disability-based harassment to all school site administrators."
Principals will then train teachers, as well as distribute memos explaining aspects of disability-based harassment.
The Office for Civil Rights report assumes particular relevance at a time when Palo Alto schools have embarked on ambitious "inclusion" programs on many campuses, in which special-education students are increasingly integrated into regular classrooms. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 both prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability.
The principal of the middle school where the bullying took place told the Weekly that the school has an array of programs that focus on "inclusion and maintaining a socially kind climate." Among them was a school-wide "disability awareness assembly" featuring adults and students with various physical and learning disabilities.
Palo Alto schools annually observe "Not in Our Schools Week," coming up in March, involving lunchtime activities "acceptance of everyone, despite our differences, or rather, celebrating our differences," the principal said.
The week includes a "mix-it-up lunch," in which kids sit with people with whom they don't normally hang out.
"Lessons on anti-bullying, cyberbullying, harassment and how to be an 'upstander' instead of a bystander are given during advisory periods, and we plan to follow up with small-group discussions this year," the principal said.
Board of Education President Dana Tom said the issues raised by the Office for Civil Rights were attributable to flawed implementation of already-existing school board policies and administrative regulations.
"I'm sorry the student experienced harassment and wish we had been able to more squarely address it," Tom said.
"Our district learned from what happened with this student and is committed to improving on behalf of every student," he said.
"Tightening up of our handling of students harassing another student with disabilities and expanding our instruction to students on social kindness to include students with disabilities will improve our district. I'm confident that our staff can and will do that."
The Weekly was provided a copy of the report and the settlement agreement by the family and confirmed its authenticity with the district. A copy, redacted to remove information that could expose the identity of the child, and the agreement, are posted at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/pivot/?CivilRightsReport and www.PaloAltoOnline.com/pivot/?CivilRightsAgreement.