The Palo Alto school district's Board Policy Review Committee (BPRC) will consider a new proposed bullying policy at a meeting Wednesday, March 12, from 10 a.m. to noon at 25 Churchill Ave.
The draft policy outlines a school-site investigation procedure for all bullying complaints that are not based on legally protected characteristics (race, sex, disability, etc.) and requires a separate district-level process known as the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) for all complaints protected under anti-discrimination laws.
In many respects, the current draft resembles the two-tiered system described in a December 2013 draft bullying policy (scrapped by Superintendent Kevin Skelly in January) but with important exceptions. Most notably, the current proposed procedure for resolving complaints at the school level has no timelines for resolution, no requirement for a written decision, and no appeals process.
The new draft policy still directs non-protected-class complaints to be investigated by school personnel "promptly" and "thoroughly" and to follow standard protocols for interviewing (for example, no interviews together of alleged perpetrator and victim). But no timeline for completing the investigation is required.
By contrast, the December draft policy's school-level procedure required resolution of bullying complaints involving non-protected-class students within 15 school days, a written decision (documenting the issues raised, the findings and rationale for the decision, and the corrective action, if any), and a right of appeal to the district's student-services coordinator.
The December draft also contained greater documentation requirements regarding bullying complaints, reports and resolutions.
Under the Uniform Complaint process for discrimination-based complaints, the time limit for resolution is 60 days, although the parties may agree to try first reaching informal school-level resolution within a 10-day time limit; if no resolution is reached within 10 days, the district Compliance Officer (Associate Superintendent Charles Young) is directed to start the district-level Uniform Complaint Procedure investigation and reach resolution within a maximum of 60 days from the date of the complaint.
Appropriate interim measures to protect the victim from further bullying or harassment while an investigation is pending is required under both the Uniform Complaint Procedure and the new proposed school-level procedure, although the Uniform Complaint Procedure provides more detailed requirements.
The December draft bullying policy was set aside by Skelly for re-tooling after "discussion with principals, district staff and others," according to a Dec. 20 memo from Skelly to the board that reversed an earlier Skelly recommendation for adoption of the December policy.
On Feb. 3, the district publicly distributed (at the District Climate Committee meeting and on its website) a draft developed more than a year ago by district Student Services Coordinator Brenda Carrillo, with some modifications, and asked the public for review and comment.
Carrillo's initial draft contained a broad school-based complaint procedure that was submitted in February 2013 to the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and rejected as inappropriate, due to its handling of protected-status bullying at the school level, according to district lawyer Dora Dome. The issue was that state law and the district's Resolution Agreement with the Office for Civil Rights required the district to utilize the district-level Uniform Complaint Procedure for any discrimination-based complaints, including those alleging discriminatory bullying or harassment. The bullying policy then underwent revisions over a period of several months to bring it into legal compliance; this effort was led by Dome and supervised by the Office for Civil Rights.
The emerging draft, ultimately presented to the BPRC in December, was reviewed by district lawyers Dome and Chad Graff, district staff, the Office for Civil Rights, the BPRC, the California Department of Education (CDE) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA). Dome and Skelly both referred to it as "strong" in fall 2013 interviews with the Weekly.
In his November superintendent newsletter, Skelly promoted the advantages of the school-based 15-day timeline "as a proactive step to resolve any issues as quickly as possible" for those "non-protected" complaints not required by law to be processed using the district-level Uniform Complaint Procedure.
Last week, in an email to the Weekly, Skelly said the December 2013 draft was set aside because of "significant questions raised about how it would be put into operation by the sites," including concerns raised about "reporting expectations" and students being "branded as bullies because of how records would be kept."
"We needed to take a step back and gather more input before moving forward," Skelly wrote.
He did not explain how the new draft would affect these specific operational, reporting and record-keeping concerns, or why it was necessary to jettison the previous policy in order to address these concerns. Skelly has declined several Weekly requests for interviews to discuss these and other questions about the policies.
The draft Skelly now recommends is the latest in a series of four different versions created over the past month (versions posted online include: Feb. 3, Feb. 11, March 4 and March 7), starting with Carrillo's initial (somewhat modified) February 2013 draft, re-issued on Feb. 3, 2014.
"We decided to return to our initial version of the bullying policy as it most closely relates to the identified values, spirit and collective interests of the PAUSD school community," Carrillo explained in an email to the Weekly.
The February 2014 drafts drew criticism from some community members active in the policy review process because the new draft language blurred and confused what had earlier been very clear distinctions drawn around protected-status bullying complaints handled under the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure and the rest of the non-protected bullying complaints slated for school-level processing. The new drafts appeared to steer all complaints, including those alleging discrimination, towards a school-level process first, raising questions of inconsistency with state and federal law, board policy and the Resolution Agreement with the Office for Civil Rights.
Subsequent revisions made in the two March drafts brought back a sharper delineation around the mandated role of the Uniform Complaint Procedure for discriminatory bullying complaints. Issues of ambiguity and inconsistency still remain to be addressed in the current draft, however, according to a number of community stakeholders involved in the review process, and are expected to be raised for discussion at the BPRC meeting.
Yesterday six community members -- Latoya Baldwin Clark, Michele Dauber, Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, Catherine Kirkman, Mary Vincent and Andrea Wolf -- jointly signed a six-page letter to Skelly and school board members outlining their significant concerns about remaining ambiguities and inconsistencies in the draft policy language related to treatment of protected-status complaints.
"The net effect is confusing and potentially misleading. This creates a risk that parents, students, staff, and administrators will erroneously handle bullying complaints under the proposed site-level bullying complaint process rather than the UCP," the letter states.
The joint letter recommends, among other changes, an "unambiguous message at the start of both the policy (BP 5131.2) and the procedure (AR 5131.2) that this proposed new site-level bullying complaint process simply does not apply in cases of discriminatory bullying based on protected status."
The district has emphasized the "iterative" nature of this policy-development process, so further revisions may be expected before the arrival of the final policy for board adoption.
According to Skelly's memo to the BPRC, community stakeholders reviewing the draft policy included the PTA, the Special Education Advisory Committee (SPEAC), Palo Alto Educator's Association (PAEA), the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Committee (LGBTQQ), We Can Do Better Palo Alto, Parents Advocating for Student Success (PASS), Student Equity Action Network (SEAN), the District Climate Committee and school administrators.
"The attached Board Policy and Administrative Regulation have been reviewed by a wide variety of stakeholders to ensure it aligns with our needs and values," Skelly's memo states.
But PTA Council President Sigrid Pinsky told the Weekly in an email that, "We have not, as an Exec Board or a General body, formally reviewed these policies." Pinksy referenced general discussions in PTA Council meetings during updates from Skelly and board member Melissa Caswell.
One of the main points discussed, she said, was the need for policies that are "accessible and easy to understand for parents in time of need." Pinsky also indicated that PTA Council Vice-President Susan Usman has been serving on the District Climate Committee and that is "our main vehicle for input." Usman did not respond to requests for comments about the draft bullying policy.
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educator's Association (the teachers' union), said she has reviewed several drafts of the bullying policy, including the December 2013 policy and more recent versions, and told the Weekly she had no specific concerns based on the language in any of these drafts. Baldwin said that her only concern was a general one, focused on making sure that "little day-to-day learning experiences" would not trigger or require a major process. She said this concern arose "more from conversations she was having with parents and others" than from any policy language she had seen proposed.
Baldwin said that after consulting with the Palo Alto Educator's Association executive board and site representative council, she had informed the district staff that the new draft bullying policy looked fine to her.
Others have raised questions about how required parental notification might affect LBGTQQ students who are not "out" to their parents in the event of a bullying or harassment complaint. A similar question was noted about sexual harassment victims, and whether parental notification might be problematic in some of those instances as well. Parental notification and involvement could be a barrier to student reporting in such instances.
All the bullying drafts under consideration in the past year have included systems for anonymous reporting, and the current district website provides an online method for that.
Both the December draft and the current proposed draft employ the same strict definition of bullying based on Education Code section 48900's criteria for authorizing the most serious disciplinary measures (suspension or expulsion) for bullying or harassment behavior that is found to be "severe or pervasive" and results in specific forms of "substantial" harm to the student targeted (for example, "causing a reasonable pupil to experience a substantially detrimental effect on physical or mental health ... or a substantial interference with his or her ability to participate in or benefit from the services ... provided by the school.")
The usefulness of this definition, labeled "far too narrow," was called into question by the six authors of the joint letter referred to above.
"The only acts that are even covered by PAUSD's new bullying policy are those acts that are so serious, pervasive and severe that they would justify suspension or expulsion. Ordinary incidents of bullying conduct that fall below this very high threshold would not even be covered by this policy," the letter states.
"PAUSD should have a policy that provides parents and students with a mechanism to complain about bullying incidents and receive an orderly response that will prevent bullying behavior from reaching this high threshold. We see no benefit to refusing to require principals to consider parent and student complaints prior to the point that the conduct has inflicted severe damage."
With regard to the argument that "a more expansive definition will escalate every childhood disagreement to the district office," the letter calls this is a "red herring" and says that "we fully expect that teachers and principals will utilize sound professional judgment and will make good decisions based on reasonable rules."
The joint letter suggests crafting a new definition of bullying that is "more consistent with the view of psychologists and educators such as that utilized in the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program: Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often, it is repeated over time."
"This is certainly restrictive enough to rule out most ordinary spats without rendering the definition so restrictive that it applies only in those few limited cases where suspension or expulsion is justified," the letter states.
All the draft bullying policies have provided for bullying-prevention programs and instruction for students as well as professional development on these topics for staff.
For those with protected-status bullying or harassment complaints, the newly-adopted Uniform Complaint Procedure process is detailed in the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure, Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment policies, which were crafted with Office for Civil Rights supervision over the past year pursuant to a Resolution Agreement between Office for Civil Rights and the district. These three updated policies were adopted by the board on Feb. 11, 2014.
The list of characteristics protected under federal and state anti-discrimination laws include actual or perceived race or ethnicity, color, nationality, national origin, ethnic group identification, age, religion, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, or association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.
To initiate the Uniform Complaint Procedure, a written complaint (alleging discriminatory bullying or harassment) must be given to a principal or to Charles Young, the district's compliance officer. No specific form is required, although one is provided on the district's website. If the written complaint is given to the principal, the principal must send the complaint within two days to the district compliance officer, who then must initiate the Uniform Complaint Procedure for investigating and resolving the complaint (which also may include an optional 10-day informal school-level process, with school's progress documented by the Compliance Officer).
Also included in the BPRC meeting packet is a Staff Guidance Memorandum summarizing information relevant to understanding and accessing policies and complaint procedures regarding discriminatory bullying, harassment and other forms of discrimination. This document was developed by the district and Office for Civil Rights pursuant to the Resolution Agreement and could also be helpful to parents, as the language is more concise and accessible than what is contained in the policy and administrative regulations.
Also included in the BPRC meeting packet is a flow chart showing the steps for addressing reports and complaints about bullying incidents. This chart also has been revised in the past few weeks to highlight more clearly the timing of the fork in the road for referring protected-status complaints for handling at the district-level, using the Uniform Complaint Procedure.
The Board Policy Review Committee includes board members Camille Townsend and Heidi Emberling. Tomorrow's meeting is open to the public and will be held in Conference Room A at the school district offices.