Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 8, 2013

New school district bullying policies given 'green light' by feds and state

Final board decisions pending as committee examines remaining issues, options

by Terri Lobdell

After spending 11 months working with federal and state agencies on developing new bullying policies and complaint procedures, the Palo Alto Unified School District could finally be poised to consider their adoption after receiving final approvals last week.

If adopted, the new policies would bring the district into compliance with state anti-bullying laws that went into effect July 2012 and also meet requirements of a resolution agreement with the federal Office for Civil Rights in connection with the case of a middle school student bullied because of disability.

The spotlight has been on the school district's bullying policies ever since an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights, detailed in a report issued last December, revealed systemic shortcomings in Terman Middle School's handling of a bullying complaint.

The report documented a lack of organized inquiry, failure to interview witnesses, poor record-keeping, lack of familiarity with the law, inadequate training, piecemeal and ineffective measures to stop the bullying, and failure to adequately address the effects of the hostile environment created by the bullying.

As a result of these findings and subsequent resolution agreement, the federal agency imposed corrective actions, which included updating district-level policies and procedures to guide school staff, parents and students in addressing complaints of bullying. The goal of the updated policies, as described by school board members and district staff in board meetings in February, was a more standardized approach to investigating and resolving reports of bullying.

"It is important for the community to know that we would like to see consistency across the district on this and that we are working towards that," school board member Melissa Baten Caswell said at that time. Caswell also wrote in an email to Superintendent Kevin Skelly: "We need to make sure our staff understands (that new policies and regulations) are being created (and that) we expect them to use the processes that are contained in these documents."

The staff, parents and students have been waiting ever since for the new policies and procedures to emerge. Their development has taken longer than anyone expected, prompting city officials and others in recent months to express exasperation about the continued absence of promised rules to guide parents and students in the event of a bullying incident.

"It would be helpful to have a clear policy," Councilwoman Liz Kniss told school board members Caswell and Heidi Emberling at a City-School Liaison Committee meeting in September.

"My sense of the community is there's been an uneasiness about how it's been handled in a policy direction, and I've said that as gently as I can."

Assistant City Manager Pam Antil, who participated in the meeting and who has two children at Jordan Middle School, said parents need clear guidelines on reporting bullying, which the district has failed to provide despite a barrage of information on other topics.

"We get 25 emails about the dress code and how long shorts can be, but it's very silent on what to do if my daughter is getting nasty messages from another person on social media."

At the meeting, Caswell, Emberling and district staff member Brenda Carrillo indicated that the policies were still "in development," which has become a standard refrain.

What the school district officials did not explain at the September meeting is that the Office for Civil Rights had signed off on a final draft of new bullying policies and procedures in early August, according to school district attorney Dora Dome. Instead of moving forward to adopt the new policies, however, the district decided to take the additional step of seeking state-level sign-off from the California Department of Education (CDE) and the California School Boards Association (CSBA), as requested in a letter dated Aug. 20, signed by Skelly and Dome and attaching the proposed policies.

In seeking these additional state-level approvals for the new policies, Skelly explained: "We are trying to get as much input as we can and make sure that OCR, CDE and CSBA are comfortable and confident in this effort."

On Friday, the district received word that the state association and education department had reviewed the proposed policies, had no concerns about any of the provisions and would be issuing a joint letter to that effect this week, according to Skelly and to CSBA's communications director, Suzanne Meraz, in an email to the Weekly.

Still, these multiple endorsements may not be sufficient for the board to move forward to recommend adoption of the draft policies, according to Skelly.

"I'm not sure that being OK will be strong enough for the board, but let's wait until we get the letter," Skelly wrote in an email to Dome.

Skelly told the Weekly the next step in the process will be discussion at the board's policy review committee, which Caswell and board member Camille Townsend serve on, scheduled to meet next on Nov. 13.

"I can't speak for the board, and until the BPRC (Board Policy Review Committee) is ready, we won't bring it to the board," Skelly said. "Nothing is decided yet."

As currently drafted, the policies would create a two-tier system for handling bullying complaints. Cases involving bullying based on "protected characteristic" (disability, race, sexual orientation, etc.) would be investigated and resolved using a district-level process called the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), as required by law and the resolution agreement.

Other cases of bullying, not involving "protected" characteristics, would be handled under a different set of rules at the school level, with fewer procedural protections.

If adopted, the policy would result in different treatment for different types of bullying victims, which is allowed under current federal and state law but for which there is no clear model.

Despite the federal and state OKs for Palo Alto's policies, Skelly said that the school board may yet hesitate about moving ahead because of the policies' lack of alignment with what the CSBA has recommended for its member districts. Neither the overall bullying policy, nor the updated Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), which the Office for Civil Rights substantially revised, match CSBA's templates.

For the rest of this article, which includes details about the legal and practical concerns of the district and how the draft policies were developed, go to www.PaloAltoOnline.com. Links to the full texts of the proposed draft policies as well as other source documents are also posted there.

Weekly Staff Writer Chris Kenrick contributed to this report. Contributing Writer Terri Lobdell can be reached at terri.lobdell@gmail.com.

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