Updated: Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 12:06 pm
Uploaded: Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 6:26 am
School district critics, lawyer clash on federal probe
Office for Civil Rights investigation was 'collaborative, fruitful' process, lawyer says
Critics of Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly and a lawyer for the school district Tuesday presented clashing perspectives on a recent probe by a federal agency of a Palo Alto middle-school bullying case.
Lawyer Laurie Reynolds characterized the investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) a "very productive, collaborative fruitful process," ending with agreement by the district to revise its bullying policies.
"What it isn't is adversarial -- not a court proceeding, not punitive," said Reynolds, of the firm Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost.
But representatives of the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto disputed Reynolds' description, charging that Skelly's failure to take advantage of "early complaint resolution" procedures offered by Office for Civil Rights led to Palo Alto being among just 1 percent of the 1,513 recipients of disability harassment complaints between 2009 and 2012 to end with "letters of finding" by the Office for Civil Rights.
Critic Ken Dauber, who ran unsuccessfully last November for a seat on the board, also disputed Reynolds's assertion that the early complaint resolution is available only if the complaining family is willing to pursue it.
"There are clear misstatements of the actual situation by Ms. Reynolds," Dauber said.
"Early complaint resolution is in fact available upon request of the school district. ... The idea that this agreement wasn't punitive is technically true, but it neglects the last paragraph that says if the district fails to comply there will be a sanction.
"It's simply not true that this is a commonplace event."
Dauber cited a section of the OCR's Processing Manual that says, "A complaint may be resolved at any time when, before the conclusion of an investigation, the recipient expresses an interest in resolving the complaint."
Dauber's group has called for an independent investigation of "what went wrong" in the case, which resulted in findings in December that the district violated a middle-school student's civil rights by failing to properly and fully investigate persistent complaints of bullying related to the student's disability.
While agreeing that Skelly should have informed them far earlier about details of the investigation, school board members Tuesday did not take up the call for a new probe.
"We did have an independent organization do an investigation here. It was the OCR -- that was their job," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"There's been a lot of discussion and work by staff on what went wrong and why we need to do more than we've been doing to resolve this kind of situation."
Skelly said he would return to the board March 12 with a draft of a new bullying policy.
Staff members assured Caswell the policy would contain clear instructions for parents and children on how to make a bullying complaint, including instructions for anonymous reporting.
Board member Barb Mitchell said she had questions about the "legal footing for students and families" raised by what Reynolds described as an Office for Civil Rights definition of bullying that is broader than the definition in the California Education Code.
"According to the OCR, bullying need not include an intent to harm, be directed to a specific target or involve repeated incidents -- and that's quite a departure from other definitions we've read and come to expect as school board members," Mitchell said.
"And OCR, the federal government -- they're big guys. I can safely say we'd all embrace that standard for student learning purposes if we can find language that assures us it's not disciplinary or punitive," Mitchell said.
As for the collaborative or adversarial nature of the district's dealings with the Office for Civil Rights, Mitchell said she would welcome a "short description from the Office for Civil Rights lawyers who were working with the district.
"There will remain in doubt until we can produce a person from OCR to describe the collaborative nature of this," she said.
Posted by Do your job,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2013 at 1:54 pm
To the following parents,
Will you now help oust this superintendent like you did six years ago? Or will you sit by and protect yourself despite even more compelling evidence that this administration needs to go
Note: the following parents (some are so PAUSD employees) signed a letter against the superintendent in 2006, it's public information:
Danny Abramovitch, Alex Aiken, Wendy Akers-Ghose, Susan Alters, Anne Avis, Amy Balsom, Dory Bleich, Jonake Bose, Martha Bowden, Ronda Breier, Steven Carothers, Pancho Chang, Dave Charleson, Mark Christopherson, Melinda Christopherson, Cindy Chun, Dan Dykwell, Claude Ezran, Dan Farley, LaVonna Floreal, David Foster, Jon Foster, Rita Giles, Sabine Girod, Carolyn Godfrey, Ellen Harris, Wynn Hausser, Scott Hayes, Kate Hill, Ann Hubbell, Steve Hubbell, Ann Idzik, Bruce Jaffe, Elizabeth Jensen, Lindsay Joye, Nancy Kelem, CeCi Kettendorf, Jenny Kiratli, Lydia Kou, Amy Ladd, Duncan MacMillan, Pam MacMillan, Lynn Morton Magill, Grace Mah, Jamie Maltz, Vera Michalchik, Natasha Moiseyev, Erwin Morton, Pauline Navarro, Cosmos Nicolaou, Evelyne Nicolaou, Joni Okamoto, Joan Phelan, Ken Poulton, Katherine Terhune Ratcliff, Miriam Rotman, Al Russell, Kathy Schroeder, Scott Schroeder, Stephanie Schubert, Ilona Sockol, John St. Clair III, Debra Sutherland, Kathy Tracy, Preeva Tramiel, Carolyn Tucher, Samir Tuma, Dianne Vernon, Mark Vernon, Lanie Wheeler, Jennifer Widom, Julie Williams, Blake Winchell , Mara Yarp, Cindy Ziebelman
Posted by Edmund Burke,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2013 at 7:54 am
"parent" and the district's lawyer want you to believe that this whole situation is the result of the fact that the parents of the disabled little girl wrote a letter to OCR. Parent insinuates that someone, probably Professor Dauber, advised the parents of the disabled little girl to write the complaint to OCR. They want you to believe that whenever OCR receives a complaint they investigate and the fact that there were only 14 districts, including PAUSD, who received Findings against them, in the entire United States of America in the past 4 years is just because there aren't many complaints. Parent and the district's lawyer want you to believe that Palo Alto is just like everywhere else -- we just got unlucky.
The district's paid lawyer said she was going to tell you all about the OCR process but she left out all the important parts to try to make it seem like PAUSD is just like everywhere else. She even told some whoppers, like "this happens every day. Many of your neighbors" have been in the same situation with OCR.
But that's not true at all.
This case is about a little disabled girl who just wanted to go to school and make friends and learn and have fun, but instead she was pushed, punched, kicked, humiliated and degraded. She was told that everyone hated her, that no one would be her friend. Children made a game of avoiding her and the game even had a name that they said out loud in front of her. They called her "stupid" and "retarded."
This went on all through 6th grade. The entire year.
The little disabled girl told FIVE teachers about the cruelty. Her parents wrote letters begging for help. They asked the superintendent. They even asked the school board members. They didn't mention that in their paid lawyer's presentation the other night, but it's true. And every one of these officials either didn't answer the family, or told them to go back to the principal who had already failed them.
The Principal told the federal investigators that she didn't think that what had happened was even harassment. And she said that her staff was very "sophisticated" so they would not need any training on disability harassment.
The assistant principal told the federal investigators that he would have helped the little disabled girl but he had no records of who had hurt her. That wasn't true at all but he said it to the federal investigators.
Meanwhile the little disabled girl was pushed and hit so hard that she couldn't even get up and had to be taken to the office in a wheelchair. She was punched in the jaw so hard she couldn't chew her food. Another girl tried to kick her and told her that everyone hated her.
That is what this case is about. It is about a little disabled girl with a speech impairment who wanted to go to school with everyone else. Maybe she saw all the signs around school saying "not in our town" and found those confusing. Maybe she saw all the anti-bullying presentations and she thought "I wonder why this doesn't apply to me? Maybe there is something so bad about me that I don't even deserve help from these adults. I guess they must be right about me. I am horrible." And she got sad. And she stayed sad. She didn't want to go to school anymore at all -- who can blame her? Then she got angry at her parents for making her go to school. Who can blame her? Why, she thought, am I the only one who is treated like this? Why am I asking adults for help and they don't help me? I must be horrible.
Then she started to think about hurting herself.
That is what this case is about.
The district's lawyer and parent want you to think that this happens everywhere.
That's not true.
It only happens where adults ignore the law. Kids can be cruel everwhere. That's not the test of whether the law is broken. The test of whether the law is broken is whether school personnel, when cruelty is brought to their attention, act to stop the harassment -- whether they take measures reasonably calculated to bring it to a stop -- or whether they ignore it because they are "very sophisticated" and don't need the help of the law.
It can only happen where the compliance officer never responds by using the Uniform Complaint Procedure.
It can only happen where the superintendent responds to pleas from the family with a note to the principal saying "I don't know what we can do."
It can only happen when the assistant principal says that he has no evidence of who is bullying even when the district has that evidence.
These facts are what courts call "deliberate indifference" to the disabled girl's rights. She had a right to an education. And the school was deliberately indifferent to whether she received it or not. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why PAUSD is in this situation. Not because kids are cruel everywhere. Not because the law changed. Not because it is hard to follow the rules.
Because everyone ignored her. Maybe because she was slow. Maybe because she was disabled. Maybe because her parent isn't a venture capitalist with a Tesla making a big donation to PIE. Maybe because the school blamed the family for being such a problem with their complaints. We won't know why until a court forces the district to answer for this. But we know the basic outline of the facts now.
As to how common this is, the district's lawyer and parent aren't telling the truth about that one either.
There were 1,513 complaints of disability harassment made to OCR in the past 4 years. Most of these were closed without any investigation. OCR doesn't "open an investigation" into every complaint even if the facts of the complaint aren't the right kind of facts. For example, if I complain that my child was hit in the face by another child but my child is not disabled, or a racial minority, or gay, and there is no evidence that this was anything but a schoolyard fight, then OCR has no role. They say "sorry, that is terrible but it's not discrimination." And they close the case. And over half of those 1513 complaints were closed administratively without a big investigation.
Only about 600 complaints even made it to the next stage -- investigation. Over half of those (348) found no violation. So that means that OCR investigated 600 complaints and found that in 348 of them, there was no evidence of a violation.
That's not what happened to PAUSD.
That left about 250 cases. Around half of those (119) were resolved in early resolution in which OCR serves as a mediator.
That's not what happened to PAUSD.
Around another 100 cases were resolved by the district agreeing to resolve the complaint by taking corrective action prior to the conclusion of the investigation so that there was no finding against the district pursuant to Section 302 of the OCR procedure manual.
That's not what happened to PAUSR.
You see, it's up to the district how hard they fight or when they cooperate with OCR. When OCR is doing an investigation, the district can say at any point in that investigation that they would like to cooperate, like to fix their violations, and like to enter into a Resolution Agreement.
But that's not what PAUSD did.
Instead, PAUSD was one of only 14 US school districts in the past 4 years to fail to say to OCR "we want to cooperate" at an early stage of the process. The district's lawyer said that this was common. She wasn't accurate at all.
The other districts in our situation are mostly poor and rural. They are in places that OCR knows well in the deep south, places like Catoosa County, Georgia, and Opelika County, Alabama, and Edgcombe County, North Carolina.
Those are the places that OCR knows well because they are in the deep south where protecting minority civil rights has been a persistent problem, places famous for bigotry and violence.
Those are PAUSD's "neighbors" that the district's paid lawyer wants you to compare yourselves to.
The district's lawyer thinks that this will be OK with you to be compared with "neighbors" like Catoosa County, Georgia, and Opelika City, Alabama, and Oconee County, Georgia, and Hemet Unified in California. She thinks that Palo Alto parents are probably just like those parents in those places and that we will be more worried about protecting our school district officials than about protecting little disabled girls from being punched and hit and kicked and taunted to the point of suicidal thoughts. Maybe we don't like outsiders, just like those places. The district's paid lawyer thinks that's a pretty good bet.
You have to tell her she's wrong. She's got the wrong theory of this case.
Palo Alto, are you going to stand with the little disabled girl who was pushed down to the ground and told she had no friends and wasn't welcome here because she was different? The only way to show the district's paid lawyer that this isn't Catoosa County Georgia or Opelika Alabama is to stand with that little girl against intolerance and against deliberate indifference.