Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 6, 2014

In unanimous comments, school board challenges federal agency

Good faith efforts to collaborate have failed, board members say

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto Board of Education members Tuesday signaled unanimous support for a resolution seeking redress against a federal civil-rights agency that is investigating the school district, saying the agency has refused to correct errors in its investigation processes, which board leaders called "purposely confrontational and disruptive."

Board members stressed that they fully agree with the mission of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights but, one by one, reiterated complaints that federal lawyers had failed to address contested facts, burdened the district with massive information requests and failed to complete investigations in a timely fashion. All members indicated support for a two-page resolution explained in a June 3 memo from board President Barb Mitchell, Vice President Melissa Baten Caswell and Superintendent Kevin Skelly.

A final board vote on the resolution is set for June 17.

In testimony before the board Tuesday, three current or former Palo Alto district parents criticized the strategy of challenging the Office for Civil Rights.

"It shocks the conscience that we would consider aligning our community with Alabama and other places of ignominy that have resisted the vindication of our civil rights by the federal government," said Cathy Kirkman, a 1980 Paly graduate and parent of two Palo Alto students.

"Palo Alto has always been an open and welcoming community, and it's just shameful that we would even consider this course of action."

Marielena Gaona Mendoza, whose family has sought redress from the district and Office for Civil Rights due to the ongoing bullying of a child, told board members, "You can be hiring lawyers, blaming OCR, blaming the parents, but if you don't take the issues seriously, they grow bigger and bigger and the more you get tangled in this big web."

Ken Dauber, a likely candidate for school board in this November's election, said the board's failure to publicly examine why its practices had drawn Office for Civil Rights scrutiny in the first place amounted to "a great missed opportunity on the part of the district."

"The reinvigoration of the OCR by the Obama administration under Russlyn Ali and now Catherine Lhamon — Ms. Lhamon is a Paly graduate, in fact — is one of the signal achievements of the Obama administration," Dauber said. "To see our school district setting itself against this work ... puts us on the wrong side of that issue and probably on the wrong side of history."

Board members insisted that sincere efforts on their part to work collaboratively with Office for Civil Rights had led nowhere and that, by going public with their complaints, they hope to help other school districts and universities experiencing the same frustrations.

"We absolutely share the same goals as the OCR," board member Dana Tom said. "The issue we're talking about tonight is over OCR's practices and ensuring they are efficient, effective and fair. Like any organization, OCR has areas where it can and should improve."

Because of confidentiality restrictions, the district has been unable to correct "incomplete, misleading, and inaccurate" media accounts generated by Office for Civil Rights investigations, Tom said.

"We can't clear up the facts in public because we cannot comment about individual student matters. There's a great asymmetry in what our district may communicate versus what others may communicate."

Under questioning from board member Heidi Emberling, lawyer Chad Graff, who has represented the district in Office for Civil Rights matters, said the federal agency had opened 277 investigations — three of them in Palo Alto — and signed 82 resolution agreements in California during the past year.

Graff said there's been little or no media coverage of the agency's activities in other districts.

"OCR is very much used to operating under the radar," he said. "It has come under a lot more scrutiny because of the media attention (here)."

Typically, investigations are opened based on an individual complaint, prior to any input from the district, Graff said.

"If any information they have from a complainant alleges a violation of civil rights, their standard practice is to open an investigation," Graff said. "They won't inform the district during that period (before opening the case); they won't ask the district for any factual response."

In conversation with Office for Civil Rights attorneys at one point over a late response from the agency, Graff said a federal lawyer suggested that Graff could sue the agency.

"I said, 'That's not what we want to do. We'd just like a response so we can move on on these issues,'" Graff said.

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