Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 15, 2013

Bullying recommendations delayed until April 9

Community interests, 'changing legal environment' complicate the work, superintendent says

by Chris Kenrick

The Palo Alto school district will unveil its recommendations for a new policy on bullying April 9, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said this week.

Skelly originally had scheduled the proposal for the Tuesday, March 12, meeting, but postponed it to "make sure we get it right," he told the Board of Education.

He said the recommendation will come after a scheduled "conversation" with the Office for Civil Rights, a reference to the office within the U.S. Department of Education that recently found the Palo Alto school district had violated a student's civil rights.

The December Office for Civil Rights report said a Palo Alto middle school's failure to stop the ongoing bullying by peers of a special-education student amounted to a "hostile environment," rising above a social or discipline problem to become a civil-rights issue.

In a "resolution agreement" signed by Skelly Dec. 14, the district admitted no violation of the law but pledged to undertake trainings, modify handbooks and communicate with students, parents and staff as specified in detail by the federal office.

Principals of all 17 public schools in Palo Alto — as well as the district's adult school — were trained Tuesday in a program called "Creating a Systemic Infrastructure to Support Anti-Bullying Efforts," Skelly said.

"It was a helpful training," he said.

"While I was heartened to see we had some of the best practices and strategies in place, there are certainly things we can work on."

In explaining his postponement of the bullying-policy recommendation, Skelly told the school board Tuesday that dealing with the issue is "hard for a lot of reasons: Foremost is that bullying is a dark part of our collective human nature and a hard problem both on an institutional and an individual level.

"Trying to capture the community spirit around things and making it understood for members of the community is hard work that must balance our legal requirements as well as our local interests," he said.

A rapidly changing legal environment as well as state and federal laws that "aren't always aligned" complicate the anti-bullying work, he said.

"We're in the vanguard of some of this as we were a few years ago when we did the policy around suicide prevention, and we want to make sure we get it right," he said.

He said he hopes for a final school board vote on a new bullying policy April 23 following a discussion April 9.

Board members appeared to accept Skelly's reasons to delay the bullying recommendations, but several community members took issue with his remarks.

"The Office for Civil Rights settlement doesn't require a new policy, it just asks us to follow existing policy," said Ken Dauber, a cofounder of the community group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, who unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the school board last November.

"The problem is that we failed to follow procedures that were clearly established in law. ... The law hasn't changed in this area, so we shouldn't pretend that's the problem."

Dauber and several members of his group have called for an independent investigation of what went wrong in the 2010-11 bullying case that was the subject of the federal report.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com

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