Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 14, 2014

District struggles to develop policy for handling bullying

Parents say district needs to spell out processes, timeline for resolving investigations of complaints

by Chris Kenrick and Terri Lobdell

Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he will rewrite a proposed school district policy on bullying after his latest version was criticized Wednesday by parents as well as members of the Board of Education's Policy Review Committee.

Committee chair Camille Townsend suggested that the full board take up the bullying policy issue because, she said, its substance is "bigger than" the two members of the board subcommittee.

Though the school board approved new policies in February aimed at protecting minority and disabled students from bullying and harassment, members said they also want a separate policy that clarifies procedures for the families of so-called "non-protected-class" students who have been bullied.

But the draft offered up Wednesday satisfied neither the board committee nor the dozen parents who sat through the meeting.

Committee member Heidi Emberling said the draft resembled "the kitchen sink" in its attempt to be comprehensive, combining policies on student conduct, bullying prevention and bullying intervention, including complaint procedures.

"I want to make sure we have what needs to be in here but also have clear guidelines and policies for stakeholders and students," Emberling said.

Townsend said she appreciated an apparent effort by drafters to avoid creating paper trails on minor playground squabbles but added that the draft lacked clear guidelines for victims and perpetrators in alleged bullying situations.

Eight parents in the audience who spoke expressed strong dissatisfaction with the proposal, saying it lacked timelines as well as clarity for parents about what their recourse is if they feel their child has been victimized.

Oakland lawyer Dora Dome, who has consulted with the district on drafting policies on discrimination, harassment and bullying, repeatedly noted that the district is not required to have any policy at all on bullying of non-protected-class students. Neither federal nor state law requires any procedures for handling complaints made by non-protected-class victims of bullying.

Dome said she personally does not advocate creating new rights (for parents and students) in district policies that do not exist in the law but said the district may want to do so in this case.

"What are you trying to achieve with this policy?" Dome repeatedly asked. "Do you want to do it for one particular kind of behavior versus any potential claim where there is a victim? It has to be a conscious decision because it's not required statutorily."

Emberling responded that bullying needed special attention in a board policy.

"We as a country are taking bullying more seriously. ... Research has shown the effects of bullying are severe, and that is what made bullying rise to this level of seriousness, and I think the conversations and the interactions and the struggle we are having around this are mirrored throughout the country."

Brenda Carrillo, the school district's coordinator of student services who has overseen the drafting of the latest version of the policy, said the draft was the result of wide community input and an effort to make all children feel included, welcome and safe at school, as well as to provide guidance to parents.

But parents in the audience complained that the draft lacked sufficient guidelines.

"The procedure (in the draft) is almost entirely illusory," Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber said.

"We need some kind of procedure, some kind of deadline, some kind of sense of what's going to happen," she said. "That has been promised and promised and promised over and over again to the community. It doesn't make sense to me for you to take two years struggling with this and come out of it without a deadline, or a due date, or a timeline."

The draft policy discussed Wednesday outlines a school-level 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.

Regarding timelines, Skelly said Wednesday that one reason the latest draft lacked them was because "people start stretching to the end (of the time limit), and I don't want to stretch to the end — we want our administrators to be responsive to these things."

But Skelly indicated he was open to timelines. Townsend also said she would be willing to consider timelines but reiterated her concern that "normal interactions that kids have at school" not be unduly formalized and escalated, with paper trails.

Parent Andrea Wolf drew applause from the audience of about 13 parents when she called for a consistent anti-bullying curriculum across the district's 12 elementary schools.

"It's terrible that at the district we don't have every site doing the same (anti-bullying) program when we all feed into three middle schools and two high schools," Wolf said. "The idea that we're allowing 12 or 13 elementary schools to teach all these different programs and when the kids get to middle school they don't have the same language, that's appalling to me."

But Skelly defended the multiple curricula, saying the district has attempted "to capture the consistency issue" with input from parents and through language in the policy that promotes "a wide range of year-long programs for positive school culture, focused on pro-active practices and intervention strategies to build resilience ... embedded into the curriculum."

Emberling questioned the definition of bullying contained in the latest draft, saying she would like to include the definition used in the bullying-prevention field: repeated hurtful acts involving an imbalance of power.

Emberling said the community is looking for clear bullying policies and procedures that engender trust.

"The community is asking for guidance — not only our parents community, but also teachers and administrators want guidance from us," she said. "I realize that we have very strong sites in our schools, and that's great for innovation, but they're looking for guidance in terms of a bullying policy. We as a board need to give it to them."

Emberling indicated she was open to the idea of using the Uniform Complaint Procedure for all bullying complaints (of protected and non-protected-class victims), as recommended by the California School Boards Association.

"If we're talking about bullying in terms of the larger issue that bullying causes emotional damage, then to me it doesn't matter if it's a protected class or not. If it rises to that level, we want to have a process for that level. So why re-invent the wheel? ... If it rises to the level of bullying, I'm just not sure ... why we would want two separate processes," Emberling said.

Emberling also proposed the idea of a board "Conduct Policy" to handle the more "garden-variety" student misbehavior that did not rise to the level of the more harmful bullying situations in order to clearly separate out other types of misconduct from the more seriously damaging bullying behavior.

Skelly said he would draft a new policy, publicize it and set a deadline for people to provide feedback, and return to the committee.

"I'm still committed to getting something," he said. "What we had here, while imperfect, would have been helpful to our district. Can it be improved? Yes. I'd like to take that shot."

Townsend said there may be a need for the full board to meet on the topic.

"I think there's enough there that the board as a whole might want to consider because I think it's bigger than the two of us," she said to Emberling.

A chart comparing the district's current proposed bullying policy and the December draft policy has been posted on PaloAltoOnline.com. Search for "School documents and source materials." A longer version of this article has also been posted.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick and freelance writer Terri Lobdell can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com and tlobdell@paweekly.com.

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