A Palo Alto school board committee gave a tentative go-ahead Friday to new policies and procedures aimed at resolving the district's violation of federal civil-rights laws in connection with its mishandling of a bullying case involving a disabled student.
If the policies are approved by the full board, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said they should satisfy a December 2012 resolution agreement signed with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights in which the district agreed to revamp its policies and procedures for dealing with complaints of discrimination based on gender, race, disability, sexual preference, etc.
But the board's Policy Review Committee decided not to adopt any district-wide policies for students who are not in these so-called "protected" classes. Instead, every school site would determine how to handle those bullying complaints.
Without an additional clear process for bullying victims who aren't in "protected classes," the district will invite more complaints and lawsuits, Stanford Law School Professor Michele Dauber said. Dauber's concern was echoed by parent Christina Schmidt, chair of the district's Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, who said that a year's worth of work to develop a new bullying policy would be lost if the district does not adopt a uniform grievance procedure for all bullying victims, whether or not they're in a protected class.
Oakland lawyer Dora Dome, who is advising the school district on federal civil-rights compliance, disagreed.
"There is a process (for 'non-protected students')," Dome said. "It's not laid out like it is for protected classes, but it does have a structure."
The process would be for bullying targets or their parents to appeal to a teacher or principal, Skelly said. If they're not satisfied with a principal's resolution of the case, they can file a complaint against the principal or other district personnel with the district office and the district is required to investigate.
Once the board approves policies to bring the district into compliance with federal law regarding "protected" students, he said, the district can continue working on specific policies governing other students, which are not required by law.
Committee member Melissa Baten Caswell -- who last month advocated a single bullying complaint process for all students -- said she had changed her mind after speaking with teachers and the head of the teachers' union.
Caswell said she originally believed a consistent process for all students would be simpler for parents to understand and for teachers to implement, but was persuaded otherwise.
"I realized it wouldn't be more simple," she said. "Teachers would be required within 24 hours to report that, 'Yeah, I pushed you.' I was told it would become such a heavy process it would be the primary process in the classroom. I changed my mind as a result of that.
"We obviously have to obey the law and protect kids, but we shouldn't be creating incidents that aren't incidents," Caswell said.
But she said she wanted to be sure to include language in the new policy clarifying the school's responsibility to investigate any school repercussions of harassment or bullying events, even if the events themselves take place off campus.
Citing cyber-bullying, off-campus fights or "egg wars," Caswell said there's been confusion among some in the past as to whether the school has responsibility.
"I think we're doing training, but I know there's been confusion, and I don't want people to say, 'I don't know whether we're responsible or not.'"
Caswell and fellow committee member Camille Townsend told Skelly to return with clarification on posting procedures on the district's website for all types of bullying complaints, updating student manuals that will be distributed next fall, a system for tracking site-based bullying complaints, including oral complaints, and a timetable for rolling out new reporting forms on bullying.
"Parents just want rules they can refer to," Townsend told Skelly.
"When you present this to the board I want reference to the conduct policy that it's inappropriate to bully other students, and that if you're in a protected class there's a clear Uniform Complaint Procedure and if you are not in a protect class our staff knows what to do as well," she said.
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