More than 100 people showed up Thursday night to a parent-education event in which representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights described how and when the office approaches issues of discriminatory harassment in schools.
The event at Ohlone Elementary school attracted a mix of parents, members of local student advocacy groups and concerned community members. Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Kevin Skelly and trustee Camille Townsend attended but were not part of the program.
The Office for Civil Rights found in December that Palo Alto's school district had violated a disabled student's civil rights in its handling of a bullying case. The district has since entered into a "resolution agreement" with the agency to correct the problem. The office is currently investigating at least three other cases of alleged discrimination in the district.
The representatives stated at the beginning of their presentation that they were unable to respond directly to individual circumstances and cases. They focused instead on presenting a general overview of discriminatory harassment, appropriate methods for schools to remedy situations in which it occurs and the circumstances associated with their office's involvement.
One of the representatives, Gemini McCasland, an attorney with the office's San Francisco office, said that the office has a customer service line that can assist with more specific questions regarding harassment, anonymously if need be.
McCasland said that while schools may have their own policies to address bullying, the federal government doesn't have specific laws that confront it. But many of its characteristics often overlap with those of discriminatory harassment, which the federal government does have laws to protect against.
In order for behavior to be considered discriminatory harassment, she said, it must be "severe, pervasive or persistent" and it must create a hostile environment that denies or limits the target of the harassment from benefiting from the school's program.
It must also be based on a student's sex, race, disability, color, national origin and in some cases, religion.
Discriminatory harassment, she said, is different from bullying in that it need not be repeated and that it can be done without the intent to harm its target.
Harassing conduct can take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling, use of cell phone or internet, and other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful or humiliating. It may be called bullying, hazing or teasing, but regardless of the label, the conduct itself must be assessed by the school for civil rights implications in addition to any other local or state policies or laws that may also apply.
In analyzing the conduct and its effects to determine whether a "hostile environment" has been created that interferes with or limits a student's education, the school must look at the totality of the circumstances, including both objective and subjective factors, McCasland said.
According to McCasland, these factors can include: location, nature, frequency, duration and scope of the conduct; whether the conduct is daily, sporadic or widespread; the number of students involved; other incidents occurring and how those were responded to by the school; the age of the students involved; and whether the students affected have suffered emotionally, academically or physically.
Some of the possible effects on students from discriminatory harassment can include anxiety, insomnia, fear of going to school, a drop in grades, reluctance to participate in certain school activities, and depression.
In most cases, McCasland said, "the harassment must consist of more than a casual or isolated incident to establish that a hostile environment occurred."
Generally, McCasland said, the more severe the behavior, the less repeated it needs to be to be considered actionable discriminatory harassment.
Further, more specific examples can be found at the office's online reading room.
Once a school becomes aware that discriminatory harassment may be occurring, McCasland said the school must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the facts. The specific steps required will depend on the facts, but in all cases, the inquiry should be prompt, thorough and impartial. If the school finds that discriminatory harassment has occurred it must take action reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring.
If the Office of Civil Rights becomes involved, it will examine the reasonableness, timeliness and effectiveness of the steps the school took to combat the harassment, McCasland said.
She said it was important that the school's countermeasures go beyond simple discipline for the offending party. Further action might include providing additional opportunities and services like academic support and counseling to the target, implementing harassment monitoring programs and awareness training, and adopting and reporting new policies so that the harassment does not occur again.
After the presentation concluded, McCasland and her colleague Jim Wood answered questions from the audience, most of which were submitted anonymously by cards and generally served to clarify points from the dense material presented during the presentation.
In response to an audience question about whether a parent should first try to resolve an issue of discriminatory harassment with the district, or instead go directly to the Office for Civil Rights, San Francisco regional office "team leader" James Wood responded that there is no requirement to first take up an issue of discriminatory harassment with the school.
He advised parents to "use your best judgment" about whether there's enough potential trust, ability or capacity to try to resolve the issue locally. At any point, the complainant is free to seek advice and redress with the Office for Civil Rights, and file a complaint using the complaint form on the office's website. However, in cases where there is a formal district proceeding already underway, the Office for Civil Rights will wait until that proceeding is completed before acting upon a complaint; in such cases, the parents must file with the Office for Civil Rights within 60 days if the parent is not satisfied with the outcome of the district proceeding.
The event was co-sponsored by a number of student advocacy groups, including We Can Do Better Palo Alto, a group co-founded by 2012 school board candidate Ken Dauber, Parent Advocates for Student Success, the Community Advisory Council for Special Education and the Student Equity Action Network.
The school district was initially a co-sponsor, but withdrew its support out of fears the event would be used to encourage additional civil rights complaints against the district, according to Skelly.