The leadership of the Palo Alto Unified School District is swinging back at a federal agency, alleging that factual errors and faulty investigation practices by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) have "caused significant damage to the district and our dedicated educators."
"This is not a minor disagreement," school board President Barb Mitchell, Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said Friday in a memo to the full board.
"Our district seeks to address and resolve issues raised by OCR, but we have growing concerns their work is implemented to promote confusion and concern rather than to build trust and strengthen school-based practices together."
They characterize the federal agency's investigations as "purposefully confrontational and disruptive."
The trio are asking the board to pass a two-page resolution that summarizes the district's complaints against the Office for Civil Rights and states that the district will "expand its pursuit of a just review and remedy of substantial OCR errors in (the 2011 case of a disabled Terman student) ... through correspondence and meetings with elected representatives and educational coalition affiliates."
Some of those errors, the board memo states, include: "OCR's conclusion that disciplinary action was not taken; the omission of contradictory witness accounts; the incomplete portrayal of staff actions; and the inaccuracy of quotes attributed to District staff."
Released with the memo were several letters from the district or its attorneys to the federal agency that had previously been withheld in response to repeated requests from the Palo Alto Weekly. The district did not release any actual evidence of the specific claims about the Office for Civil Rights, nor any agency letters to the district that might put the dispute between the two agencies in perspective. The district has turned down ongoing requests from the Weekly for these documents, arguing that they are exempt either due to attorney-client privilege or student privacy issues.
Representatives of the Office for Civil Rights were not immediately available for comment.
The proposed resolution is slated for discussion by the Board of Education Tuesday, June 3, and for a final board vote June 17.
The decision to go public with its criticisms of the Office for Civil Rights represents a reversal of a district strategy of refusing to comment or to provide any documents to the public on the federal investigations or its response to them. And it comes almost exactly a year after Mitchell wrote to the school district's attorney and her colleagues expressing her belief that agency was "strong arming policy 'agreements' at the school district" and asked questions about what legal means the district might have to counter it. That email, accidentally released by the district, was one of the few windows into the board's handling of the federal investigations.
The board has met regularly over the last year in closed session to discuss the federal cases, so the memo and proposed board resolution released Friday presumably reflect the entire board's intended action even though it is presented as from Mitchell, Caswell and Skelly.
Over the past two years, the federal agency has conducted at least seven investigations in the Palo Alto school district. Two of those remain open. Four have recently been dropped for insufficient evidence. In an open case involving Terman Middle School, conditions of a voluntary "resolution agreement" signed by the district and the Office for Civil Rights are expected to be completed in the next school year.
Complaints about the agency's handling of the Terman case -- in which investigators found in December 2012 that the district's mishandling of ongoing bullying violated the civil rights of a disabled student -- are the particular focus of the board leadership's proposed resolution. The district admitted no wrongdoing in the case but did agree to meet conditions of a December 2012 "resolution agreement," which included communication to parents, staff training and adoption of anti-harassment policies applying to students with disabilities and other legally protected minority groups.
Two weeks after Skelly signed the voluntary resolution agreement on Dec. 14, the Office for Civil Rights issued a Dec. 26 "letter of findings," which Mitchell, Caswell and Skelly characterized as "an unexpected report concluding the district had violated anti-discrimination laws. ... This was a startling contradiction of extensive and well-documented staff actions in which civil rights laws were followed," they said.
It was the Dec. 14 resolution agreement and the Dec. 26 letter of findings that Skelly chose not to share with the board until the Weekly obtained them from the complainant and publicly revealed the case in a Feb. 8, 2013, story.
Friday's draft resolution charges the Office for Civil Rights with failure to act on the disputed evidence and takes issue with the agency's denial of "multiple formal district requests for records of evidence in the disputed case."
The Office for Civil Rights' failure to respond has harmed the district because "media reporting on OCR investigations and on information received from complainants -- to which the district may not respond because of confidentiality laws -- has misled the public and burdened district staff with misrepresentations," the resolution said.
The memo accompanying the resolution states that the agency's faulty work and conclusions "have been magnified by local media coverage that assumes OCR fidelity, unwittingly misrepresents facts, and portrays actions of district staff members unfairly and without complete information."
More than 50 pages of articles and letters were appended to the memo.