The Palo Alto Board of Education is set to vote Tuesday, Feb. 11, on new policies governing the harassment of disabled and other minority students.
If approved, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the policies should satisfy a December 2012 agreement signed with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights in which the district agreed to revamp its procedures for handling complaints of discrimination based on "protected classes," including disability, gender, race, and sexual preference.
That agreement followed a December 2012 federal finding that the district's mishandling of a bullying case had violated the civil rights of a disabled student.
In discussing the proposed new policies -- more than a year in the making and applying only to "protected classes," not to all students -- board members indicated during their Jan. 28 meeting that they would support them when the final vote comes Tuesday.
But they said they expect to act further on a general bullying policy, which Skelly has promised to deliver by March.
Even though the discussion of policies for "protected students" occurred late in the Jan. 28 meeting after 1 a.m. Jan. 29 five community members waited around to contest the proposal, arguing there should be a single process for handling all bullying complaints, not two processes that separate "protected classes" from other students.
After a year of working to rewrite policies, Skelly briefly backed a version that would have treated all students similarly. But last month he said he'd been persuaded by teachers and principals that a single complaint procedure would be impractical and run the risk of escalating minor playground disputes.
Community members at the late-night meeting disagreed.
"I believed we were going to protect all students -- not just protected classes -- and now I stand before you and ask, 'What happened?'" parent Christina Schmidt said.
But board members said they agreed with Skelly's worry that a system-wide policy could unduly formalize minor incidents and create records for playground scuffles.
"Every case isn't a federal case," board member Camille Townsend said.
Board President Barb Mitchell agreed. "While it's very technical and often doesn't seem as sensible to the everyman standard, I think that (the proposed policy) makes a lot of sense. I'm also convinced that the policy framework allows us to honor and fulfill all our goals and commitments we've made while, yes, it's take us longer to pull this together."
The bullying policy he's aiming to bring to the board in March, Skelly said, will "capture board and community values" of "simplicity, clear direction and processes for administrators, staff, and students and parents...., a flowchart/timeline for responsiveness, protection for those accused of bullying as well as consistency in practices between and among schools."
The fact that the bullying discussion came past midnight in the Jan. 28 meeting sparked hand wringing among board members the following week, when they met Feb. 6 for their mid-year "retreat."
Members fretted about the length and effectiveness of board meetings in general.
"We spend too much time talking about things that don't really move the needle," board member Dana Tom said, suggesting that agendas be managed to keep discussion "at the highest leverage points" to keep members from micromanaging.
Board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell said board discussion too often strays "into the weeds" before clarification of "big picture" goals.
"If we go to the higher level first, we may all agree on a lot of things," Caswell said. "Staff should give that to us as well."
Referring to the Jan. 28 meeting, Townsend said: "While I don't want to use one board meeting as a reflection of all of them ... when we slip, we slip big and our last meeting we slipped so badly."
But several referred with frustration to a Jan. 28 discussion of proposed changes to freshman English at Palo Alto High School, which stretched far beyond its allotted 10 minutes on the agenda.
Teachers had proposed dismantling the current two-lane structure in freshman English to offer an accelerated class to all ninth graders. The proposal prompted a flood of emails to board members and comments from seven community members at the Jan. 28 meeting.
That item, board members agreed, deserved lengthier -- and earlier -- scrutiny, not 10 minutes.
Board members were cool to the English proposal Jan. 28. Skelly said he would work on it and bring it back to the board at a later time. But it is not on the Feb. 11 agenda, and English Department chair Shirley Tokheim said it will not be in the board's Feb. 25 agenda.
The vote on policy revisions on bullying of "protected students," is near the start of the agenda for Tuesday's meeting estimated to come up at 6:45 p.m. -- instead of being at the end of the agenda as it was Jan. 28.
An "Open Forum" period, during which members of the public may address the board about subjects not on the agenda, is scheduled to come up at 6:45 p.m.
Tuesday's public session begins at 6:30 p.m. in the boardroom of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.