Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 17, 2014

Feds: 'No civil rights violations'

School district exonerated in handling of two bullying cases

by Chris Kenrick

Federal investigators have found that the Palo Alto school district did not violate the civil rights of two disabled students in the way it handled their complaints of bullying.

In a Jan. 13 letter provided to the Weekly by one of the families, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said there was "insufficient evidence" to support a finding that the district had violated federal law in its response to the bullying of their child.

The Office for Civil Rights' letter to the second family was not available, but the child's mother told the Weekly: "While the OCR found that our child did experience bullying incidents and shared our concern for our child's well-being, the agency concluded that this did not constitute discrimination."

The Office for Civil Rights' jurisdiction extends only to cases of discriminatory harassment on the basis of race, gender, disability, religion, sexual preference, etc. In closing these two cases, the federal agency concluded that it could not establish that the bullying the two students experienced was about their disabilities or that they were targeted due to their disabilities. Therefore there was no violation of federal law.

Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly disclosed outcomes of the two cases to the Board of Education Tuesday night.

"I am pleased to report that the district recently received positive determinations and closure of two OCR investigations," Skelly said, going on to quote portions of the letters that described steps taken by school staff members in each case to respond to and monitor the students who complained of harassment.

"I am pleased by these positive results, and they honor the consistent efforts of our staff members to make our schools safe and respectful learning environments for all students," Skelly said.

Families in both of the cases closed this week said their children continue to experience bullying in school, and they are considering appeals of the federal findings.

"Although we are disappointed in this result, we are gratified that OCR advised the district in its letter that the district should have done more to address our child's deteriorating emotional health and that many of our concerns should have been better handled within the IEP (individualized education program) process much sooner than they were," one of the mothers said.

"OCR identified several specific deficiencies in the district's handling of our case, and recommended changes as a result. We look forward to working with the district to better support our child, which has been our goal from the beginning," she said.

In one of the letters, the Office for Civil Rights Team Leader Zachary Pelchat said: "OCR does not question the complainant's claims that the incidents with other students were having a negative effect on the student."

However, Pelchat said, "The evidence showed that administrators and staff took prompt and specific actions to investigate and respond to the complainant's and student's report. ... They monitored the student (and) routinely checked in with (the student) to ensure that conflicts had been resolved."

Under the law, Pelchat said, "The district is not responsible for the actions of a harassing student but rather for its own discrimination in failing to respond adequately."

Two additional Office for Civil Rights investigations of the Palo Alto school district remain pending: a case of alleged mishandling of disability-based harassment filed in December and a probe into the district's compliance with Title IX, which bars sex discrimination in education programs receiving federal funds.

Another Office for Civil Rights investigation, involving the district's mishandling of the ongoing bullying of a disabled middle-school student, ended in a December 2012 "resolution agreement" in which the district agreed to rewrite its policies and procedures on bullying. The district is still in the process of complying with that agreement.

A second resolution agreement, also involving disability discrimination, is being monitored by the Office for Civil Rights to ensure full implementation.

The Office for Civil Rights last June dropped another case, alleging racial discrimination in a middle school search after $20 went missing from a teacher's purse, citing insufficient evidence.

Two other cases — a 2011 allegation of sex discrimination and a 2012 allegation of disability discrimination — have been closed.

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

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