News

Feds: 'No civil rights violations'

School district exonerated in handling of two bullying cases

Federal investigators have found that the Palo Alto school district did not violate the civil rights of two disabled students in the way it handled their complaints of bullying.

In a Jan. 13 letter provided to the Weekly by one of the families, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said there was "insufficient evidence" to support a finding that the district had violated federal law in its response to the bullying of their child.

The Office for Civil Rights' letter to the second family was not available, but the child's mother told the Weekly, "While the OCR found that our child did experience bullying incidents and shared our concern for our child's well-being, the agency concluded that this did not constitute discrimination."

Office for Civil Rights' jurisdiction extends only to cases of discriminatory harassment on the basis of race, gender, disability, religion, sexual preference, etc. In closing these two cases, the federal agency concluded that it could not establish that the bullying the two students experienced was about their disabilities or that they were targeted due to their disabilities. Therefore there was no violation of federal law.

Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly disclosed outcomes of the two cases to the Board of Education Tuesday night.

"I am pleased to report that the district recently received positive determinations and closure of two OCR investigations," Skelly said, going on to quote portions of the letters that described steps taken by school staff members in each case to respond to and monitor the students who complained of harassment.

"I am pleased by these positive results and they honor the consistent efforts of our staff members to make our schools safe and respectful learning environments for all students," Skelly said.

Families in both of the cases closed this week said their children continue to experience bullying in school and they are considering appeals of the federal findings.

"Although we are disappointed in this result, we are gratified that OCR advised the district in its letter that the district should have done more to address our child's deteriorating emotional health and that many of our concerns should have been better handled within the IEP (individualized education program) process much sooner than they were," one of the mothers said.

"OCR identified several specific deficiencies in the district's handling of our case, and recommended changes as a result. We look forward to working with the district to better support our child, which has been our goal from the beginning," she said.

In one of the letters, the Office for Civil Rights Team Leader Zachary Pelchat said, "OCR does not question the complainant's claims that the incidents with other students were having a negative effect on the student."

However, Pelchat said: "The evidence showed that administrators and staff took prompt and specific actions to investigate and respond to the complainant's and student's report ... They monitored the student (and) routinely checked in with (the student) to ensure that conflicts had been resolved."

Under the law, Pelchat said, "The district is not responsible for the actions of a harassing student, but rather for its own discrimination in failing to respond adequately."

Two additional Office for Civil Rights investigations of the Palo Alto school district remain pending: a case of alleged mishandling of disability-based discrimination filed in December and a probe into the district's compliance with Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds.

Another Office for Civil Rights investigation, involving the district's mishandling of the ongoing bullying of a disabled middle-school student, ended in a December 2012 "resolution agreement" in which the district agreed to rewrite its policies and procedures on bullying. The district is still in the process of complying with that agreement.

A second resolution agreement, also involving disability discrimination, is being monitored by the Office for Civil Rights to ensure full implementation.

The Office for Civil Rights last June closed another case, alleging racial discrimination in a middle-school search after $20 went missing from a teacher's purse, citing insufficient evidence.

Two other cases – a 2011 allegation of sex discrimination and a 2012 allegation of disability discrimination – have been closed.

Comments

Posted by Paul, a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 16, 2014 at 12:23 pm

PAUSD is guilty as sin for looking the other way when discrimination is afoot. Skelly is truth challenged. [Portion removed.] The only groups not discriminated against are the Asian & rich white kids. Staff members are bullied by administrators. Kids are bullied by their parents. Parents are bullied by other parents. Bullying is a way of life in not only PA but in America. It is epidemic.

With bullying comes discrimination against minorities, women, older persons, gays, and he handicapped. PAUSD is not exempted from discriminatory practices. [Portion removed.]


Posted by how many closed out now? , a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 16, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Paul, the article stated OCR found PAUSD has been doing the right thing all along and there was no discrimination. But don't let the facts get in the way of your post.


Posted by wow, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 16, 2014 at 1:41 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by Mr.Recycle, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Skelly isn;t the problem, it is the handful of parents who are litigious and entitled who cause such a waste of time, energy, and money. Can we move on and get back to complaining about the substandard math education at PAUSD?


Posted by wow, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Town Square Forums and Weekly is a joke! they have promoted all of this crazy stuff, they love controversy!


Posted by RogerD, a resident of Professorville
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:07 pm

RogerD is a registered user.

PAUSD is trying hard to do things right. The district is not being accused of abusing the kids , just of not taking steps to stop the abuse from other children.
Now we are learning that PAUSD is in fact taking appropriate action.
When will all the back biters stop.
[Portion removed.]


Posted by I can count, a resident of Midtown
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm

It's not surprising that these complaints weren't founded. What's surprising is that the others were. It's not a gold star that the district didn't violate the rights of disabled kids by letting them be bullied (though it sounds like it wasn't exactly all good either). What's surprising is that the Terman and JLS complaints were valid. Why was Katherine Baker promoted? That's ridiculous. Only because our standards have been ground into the dirt by the Skelly/board leadership would we think that this is an occasion to celebrate. Yay only 2/4 disability discrim claims are valid discrim claims. Woohoo. No.


Posted by Not Again, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:51 pm

The fact that they did not found enough evidence does not mean that the discrimination did not happen. It only means that PAUSD is lawyering up, and have learned how to defend themselves, remember they are no longer allowing OCR to talk to the bullies or withnessess. They hired more and more lawyers to defend the system all they have to do is write a check, and we just have to pay higher parcel tax to replace those funds.


Posted by how many closed out now?, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:55 pm

It's actually 2/5.
And those were the original 2 that started the whole controversy. Then you had a group of people organizing events and encouraging others with no case to file these complaints. This is the result. You have to question the motivation. All rather sad really.


Posted by how many closed out now?, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 16, 2014 at 2:56 pm

"The fact that they did not found enough evidence does not mean that the discrimination did not happen."
Err, that's exactly what it does mean! The hint is in not finding evidence.


Posted by site based, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 3:27 pm

The good news to celebrate is about the two school sites (not sure if the same site) who were accused of wrongdoing. It is not necessarily a reflection of district policies, or all of PAUSD, but about the work and sweat of the specific school sites and the specific teachers and administrators involved who handled these cases.

This is also very good information about OCR standards and litigation is not to be used lightly.


Posted by I can count , a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 16, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Actually it's 2/4 disability complaints. The other closed complaint was of race discrim by a teacher . But have it your way. Do you really want to celebrate the fact that 40% of discrimination complaints are found to be valid by federal investigators? Yippee. Is that PAs new slogan? Palo Alto: where we only let the bullies run wild 40% of the time! Or Palo Alto: better than a stopped clock. Or Palo Alto: if 600 was a batting average instead of a nondiscrimination rate it would be pretty sweet. What's your point? Yay, we learned our lesson? If we had learned nothing in the past 2 years that would be horrific. But since when is "not horrific" a cause for a party? And before you tie on your party hats note that another complaint was just filed over 504 plans.

Yes the positive finding at Terman generated more complaints. That's because the district has broken relationships with a lot of special Ed families. Until that is fixed this is the predictable result.


Posted by Oh goody, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Does that mean that PAUSD can now focus on the remaining 99% of their students?


Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 16, 2014 at 5:33 pm

99.95%


Posted by Jake and Elwood , a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2014 at 5:40 pm

11% of district students are on iep. Another similar number are on 504 plans. 10% are under represented minorities (a lot of overlap with special Ed due to rank discrimination). 50% are female. 12% are LGBT (based on national averages). So who is in the minority?


Posted by Insufficient evidence, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 5:53 pm

Will we be cheering, will Barb Mitchell thank Kevin Skelly for his leadership like she did at the last board meeting, will trolls declare that OCR complaints and violations are the fault of parents, when insufficient evidence is found to substantiate the claims that some of our Paly children were raped?


Posted by Jake and Elwood, a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Are you accusing the Verde of fabricating its story? That's pretty bold. What's your evidence? [Portion removed.]


Posted by vote, a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 16, 2014 at 6:23 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by update, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 16, 2014 at 7:08 pm

That's now 2/7. Two had already been closed. This is another 2 closed out and the other found in favor of the district. There are still 2 pending (9 in total). Of the two pending, one wasn't instituted by the person involved who didn't want the investigation to happen. "Friends of OCR" decided otherwise so it's really 2/8.


Posted by One of the Settlements, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 7:26 pm

The subject of our complaint was that at the time, the District wasn't even extending the 504 process to disabled students at all, or making district procedures public, or following them. The special ed people denied even knowing about 504 procedures. The federal law requires all districts to have procedures to comply with the ADA. They get to write these procedures themselves, it's not a bunch of rules from on high. They get to decide how they comply with the law. But they have to make those procedures available publicly and they have to follow them.

Our district wasn't doing this. When they were apprised of the problem, they didn't fix it of their own accord, hence the complaint to the government. When the government wasn't satisfied with the way PAUSD addressed the problems, they laid out a course of corrective action and got PAUSD to sign it, which was the settlement. The issues OCR look at and has jurisdiction over are fairly narrow -- you may suffer discrimination, or bullying, but it's not necessarily something their office takes up. Their focus is to ensure districts comply with the ADA law. Their purpose is not to punish districts, just to help them do the right thing for students and comply with the law.

As a result of the complaint, PAUSD entered into a settlement agreement and fixed the problems. I think they still have work to do — we almost filed a second related complaint, and it was something that was under OCR jurisdiction, but we have to give a lot of credit to Kevin Skelly for turning things around and doing the right things moving forward so that it wasn't necessary. We feel he was diplomatic and give him a lot of credit for how he handled everything.

Our district has come a long way. I personally think we should find a different law firm, their advice has been sometimes unnecessarily antagonistic which ends up costing everyone more money. It certainly doesn't help encourage collaborative resolution, as I think these cases illustrate. I hope the families are able to get the right resources to help their kids, and if there are issues that should be appealed, they pursue them. It's ultimately those who are willing to prevail who help everyone else.

The district does have a ways to go to heal things over with special ed families, though. I don't know if I am optimistic, but I have reasons to be hopeful. There is a lot of misinformation above -- no one is getting anything financial out of this, and everyone is just trying to do what's best for the kids.


Posted by Edmund Burke, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Thank you "one of the settlements" for posting about your experience. It is important to know as well that "closing" a case does not mean that it resolved on terms favorable to the district. It can mean that the parties agreed to mediation to resolve the complaint. That happened in one case involving disability discrimination in 2012.

For those who would like a scorecard here is one:

1. Sex discrimination, 2012, closed, no information on what the terms of the resolution were.
2. Disability discrimination 2012, early resolution, mediation, family told the Weekly that the district retaliated against them and they regretted settling.
3. Disability discrimination, 2012, lack of 504 procedures. Resolution Agreement. Described by claimant above. Claimant says that it was a good resolution but district still has work to do, see 9 below.
4. Disability harassment, 2012, Letter of Finding, Resolution Agreement, Terman.
5. Disability harassment, 2012-13, Duveneck School, insufficient evidence of discrimination.
6. Disability harassment, 2012-13, Jordan School, insufficient evidence of discrimination.
7. Sexual harassment, 2012-13, Paly, compliance review under Title IX., still pending.
8. Racial discrimiantion, 2012, Jordan, insufficient evidence of discrimination.
9. Disability discrimination, Section 504, failure to follow procedures. Still open.

I think the district deserves credit for lessons learned to the extent that it made reforms based on the Terman and JLS Resolution Agreements. I don't think that is the whole story due to the time-frames involved. Part of the story is that what we are seeing in the uneven results is to some extent the result of site-based control, and a lack of standardized procedures. Some students, in some schools receive better outcomes and better process than others, depending on the principal, the staff, and the local practices in place.

The problem is that there was never any public investigation or discussion of what happened in the first two cases, why things got off track, and how to fix them. We therefore have no idea whether the original issues are resolved, or whether these two schools are just better run than Terman in the first place.

Without a full, public, impartial investigation into what went wrong it is just not possible to know how to interpret the conflicting signals we have from these various cases. In an environment of decentralization and site-based control, these cases may literally have nothing to do with each other. The only way to understand this situation is with real transparency. So far, all information has had to be pried from the district by the press, including forcing the board to open its BPRC meetings in accordance with the Brown Act. The public should not have to fight for scraps of information about something so important.


Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 16, 2014 at 10:06 pm

The problem with single issue advocates is they never admit they were wrong or overstating their case.

In other words, evidence rarely changes minds or opinions.


Posted by One of the Settlements, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 16, 2014 at 10:56 pm

Edmund Burke,
Thank you for your summary. I think it's very important to realize that OCR doesn't necessarily get involved even if the outcome of the process in a given case isn't what it should be -- they are involved when process isn't followed or districts don't give people due process. It's the difference between a possibly wrong verdict in a case and the law not being properly applied or applied at all. In the former case, through due process, families can escalate their case to hearings and in the courts if their child's rights are denied. This is difficult for all sides, it's always better if things can be resolved far short of that. The latter case is where the OCR would be involved.


Posted by Duveneck parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 16, 2014 at 11:20 pm


Thank you to 'one of the settlements' and to Edmund Burke. Staying focused on facts provides clarity. I am less hopeful about the district now that they have decided to NOT establish A bullying policy. Please consider attending the Jan 28th school board meeting to hear the board's latest thoughts on this subject.


Posted by Edmund Burke, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:17 am

@one of the settlements, in the FAPE and 504 context you are correct. In the disability (and other protected status) harassment context, OCR takes a somewhat more active enforcement role. However, the bar for finding discrimination is high. Districts must have notice (actual or constructive) of the bullying, and can deny having had notice, for example. Districts must fail to take any reasonable steps to intervene effectively to stop the harassment and remedy its effects. Most disability harassment claims simply do not meet this high standard, which is why the Letter of Finding in the Terman case revealed facts that were shocking to many in the community. People want to know how such a situation could have happened? Why weren't there any checks or procedures that would have brought that matter to the attention of the district office before it went so seriously off the rails? And so forth.

The same could be said of your case. Why didn't the Compliance Office realize the problem after receiving what I am sure were multiple efforts at communications with him about the procedural problems in the district's 504 process?

Are there any similarities in the efforts to escalate the matters in the two cases that should alert the district to the need for better processes of managing conflict with parents?

Are those problems unique to Terman or are they more widespread?

Are those problems unique to special ed or are they more general?

Without a full, public, transparent investigation of what went wrong it is impossible to know whether it is fixed now. I would like to believe that these two findings are a hopeful sign. Indeed, it would be hard for the district not to have learned from the Terman experience. I've certainly no investment in things being broken -- kids are better off in a situation that works well.

The disparate results from the different sites suggests that strong, consistent, comprehensive policies on harassment and bullying of all types is called for.


Posted by some are trying, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 5:14 am

One of the settlements,

You say "no one is getting anything financial out of this." Some are trying.

One of the two families with a disabled child recently took steps to sue the district despite getting all they asked for in the OCR stage. "Family files claim against school district." The Weekly reports that "the family seeks damages" including financial support for "after the student 'ages out' of the public educational system at age 18." Web Link

A second family, also after their demands were met, turned around and sued the district in federal court under the Americans with Disabilities Act for damages resulting from "embarrassment, humiliation, medical issues" and for attorneys fees. "In federal suit, parents in 2012 Jordan case seek damages, lawyers' fees". Web Link


Posted by Not Again, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 9:07 am

Some are trying,
I am wondering how do you know that the parents in one of the OCR cases has gotten ALL they WANT? I might be wrong, but do not remember seeing or hearing this in the news. Can you tell us what was it what the parents in this case wanted from the school district or what have they have gotten? Hoow do not know it? Hmmm I am wondering who you are?


Posted by OCR's vital role, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 10:48 am

There is a fundamental misconception about what it means for an OCR case to be "closed." It does **not** mean there was no finding of discrimination. Only highly credible and serious complaints, backed by evidence, have the OCR opening an investigation in the first place. Typically in the course of such an investigation the school district is forced to take the complaint seriously, which it didn't do when it was brought to them by the parents. Faced with the facts and under the eye of the OCR, the school district then changes its practices.

That is a victory for everyone, including the students who come after who may be spared the pain of discriminatory actions.


Posted by Reality, a resident of Ventura
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:13 am

Bullying is a part of life, and it occurs in every school district in the nation. It is impossible to eliminate the problem, and it's not the district's fault. If your child is being bullied, it is up to you, the parent, to identify the problem and help your child solve the issue. The only person worth blaming is the bully, not the district. Bullying-related lawsuits against the district are a waste of everybody's time and tax dollars.


Posted by Finally!!!, a resident of Southgate
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:23 am

Thanks so much REALITY!!!! Finally someone with common sense steps up and talks rationally. Problem with U.S. today is lots of people don't want to see their role in situations or how they can solve the problem, just want to blame and nowadays get a lawyer and get paid!

JUST SO EASY TO BLAME PAUSD AND SKELLEY-what a joke but is the way world is today.


Posted by Compassionate conservative, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:45 am

[Post removed]


Posted by sticking to the point, a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 17, 2014 at 11:52 am

If we're going to keep score, let's stick to the topic of thread: 'No civil rights violations'

1. Sex discrimination, 2012, OCR Verdict: No civil rights violations
2. Disability discrimination 2012, OCR Verdict: early resolution,
3. Disability discrimination, 2012, OCR Verdict: No civil rights violations
4. Disability harassment, 2012, OCR Verdict Letter of Finding, Resolution Agreement, Terman.
5. Disability harassment, 2012-13, OCR Verdict: No civil rights violations
6. Disability harassment, 2012-13, OCR Verdict: No civil rights violations
7. Sexual harassment, 2012-13, Paly, compliance review under Title IX., OCR Verdict: Pending
8. Racial discrimiantion, 2012, OCR Verdict: No civil rights violations
9. Disability discrimination, Section 504, failure to follow procedures. OCR Verdict: Pending

With OCR walking away from these complaints, all that is left are lawyered up parents.

These continual findings show there is no endemic issue with the district.

Ms Burke's assertion of "what we are seeing in the uneven results is to some extent the result of site-based control, and a lack of standardized procedures" is also a fallacy. She should read the thread above where the parents are determined to appeal the OCR findings. Even with a fully designed process, these parents are going to lawyer up.

OCR has found no civil rights violations. That wasn't good enough for these parents. A centralized process would not have and will not stop these parents from filing complaints when life happens.


Posted by Edmund Burke, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:33 pm

The listing of complaints and resolutions I provided above is accurate. "stick" is incorrect as follows:

1. The resolution in this matter is not known and is not public. If you have some information about it, cite the source and post a link. Otherwise, you have no more idea than anyone else how it resolved or what the facts were.
3. There was a resolution agreement in that matter, and you are incorrect that there were no violations. There were violations. There was no process for 504 grievances and fair hearings.That was a violation.

The stream of misinformation that you post both to this thread and to others does no one any good. The picture is mixed. There is no need to embellish it to try to make it appear slightly less problematic. The facts are what they are. No one knows what happened in incident 1, and there were in fact violations found in incident 4.

Why are there so many complaints? Why isn't the district more interested in identifying problem situations and resolving them through working with families prior to their becoming formalized complaints to other agencies?


Posted by Mom, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:52 pm

Totally agree with Mr. Recycle that it's the litigious parents who are the problem. Palo Altans are too feisty. Re the substandard math (Everyday Math), it will be replaced once Common Core standards kick-in.

Three of my children had bullying issues and administration stopped it immediately. My children are well-liked and earn good grades. I think some continuous bullying might be the result of the child being unlikeable or the parents being unlikeable. I know of someone whose son is bullied and it's no wonder - he irritates everyone like a gnat and his mom yells at administration. That said, there are principals out there who don't address bullying well. If that were the case, I'd march straight to the parents and bypass the school district.


Posted by Ripley's, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 17, 2014 at 12:58 pm

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


Posted by Ripley's, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jan 17, 2014 at 1:25 pm

[Post removed.]


Posted by jerry99, a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2014 at 2:39 pm

Looking at the data it looks like the parents love to file disability lawsuits to shake down the school district. For money? or for ego? Stop wasting the School district's time and let them focus on teaching our students.


Posted by Alphonso, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Jan 17, 2014 at 8:33 pm

Alphonso is a registered user.

[Post removed.]


Posted by Anonymous22, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 17, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Anonymous22 is a registered user.

I don't know why people who don't know anything about what is going on feel like it's they should express strong opinions about these matters in public discussions.

To the above parents of children who had bullying issues or observations, with all due respect, your situations are only relevant here if your child had a disability, was bullied in a way that related to that disability, and the processes in place to protect children in vulnerable classes like that were not followed or were not in place in our district. The issue of bullying in general is not at issue here or part of the complaints.

There are other problems besides bullying that are at issue here. Students with learning disabilities or other disabilities that require accommodation are legally entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. The law requires districts to actively identify those students who need such accommodations, because early intervention turns out to be better for the students and cheaper for everyone in the long run. The law requires districts to have procedures -- which districts write themselves -- to extend those protections to student who need them and to give families due process if their children's rights are denied.

One of the settlements was because our district didn't have procedures in place to evaluate and grant students those rights under Section 504 or didn't follow them. Pursuing such a complaint is time-consuming, stressful, and solely for the purpose of protecting the civil rights of vulnerable students, there is no money damages involved, in fact, when families have to hire their own counsel it can cost thousands of dollars out of pocket for which they are never reimbursed or never seek reimbursement (speaking from experience).

With all due respect, Jerry, the district should stop wasting parents' time and follow the law for the sake of the students without requiring parents to go to such extents. The OCR gets thousands of complaints annually and only takes up a small percentage of those. Most of those are handled without requiring a settlement because districts fix the problems. Only a handful, like 10 or 20 out of thousands, end up requiring a settlement with the OCR, and PAUSD had two in one year.

I do see personalities and lack of professionalism at the district office level that have contributed to the problems, and I don't mean Kevin Skelly. I think he has tried very hard to bring our district up to federal standards. It remains to be seen whether the implementation will. Hopefully so, so we can all get on with things. I agree with Edmund Burke that transparency is a good thing.



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