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Family reveals details of 2012 Office of Civil Rights case alleging discriminatory harassment and retaliation

Original post made on Jun 15, 2013

On Jan. 16, 2012, the parents of a Palo Alto student filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against the Palo Alto Unified School District. The parents alleged disability-based discriminatory harassment by a teacher and also subsequent acts of retaliation by school officials in response to the concerns the parents raised about the teacher, according to the student's mother.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, June 14, 2013, 8:26 AM

Comments (14)

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Posted by anonymous parent and lawyer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2013 at 9:38 am

Thank you to the family featured in this story for sharing their experience with PAUSD's process. At a recent Board of Education meeting a community member indicated that reports of additional OCR complaints were being heard, including one involving retaliation. This may be that complaint or there may yet be others.

It is not an accident that the two Resolution Agreements that first became public -- one involving 504 processes, and one involving disability based harassment -- both involve disabled students. It is the observation of many families who have been involved with PAUSD's special education system that officials do not follow (or seem aware of) the law. Processes are routinely flouted, promised accommodations never materialize, and bullying is routine.

Although PAUSD has never treated disabled students as full members of the community, it has become much worse since the departure of Carol Zepecki. Under Carol's leadership the district tended to offer to students and families what was desired or needed to meet each student's needs or to reassure the family. Since the arrival of Holly Wade, the district has adopted what might be referred to as the "Poway Doctrine" which is to save money whenever and wherever possible by gutting special education services and by forcing parents to accept whatever the district is offering rather than by trying to work things through with parents to their satisfaction.

Many parents since the arrival of Kevin Skelly have been told to like it or lump it. The district has not hesitated under the Poway Doctrine to tell parents to sue them or go to due process. Parents are told, "this is what you can have and if you don't like it go to due process." Due process hearings are hard to win, and the district brings in outside counsel from Laurie Reynolds' office and fights the family tooth and nail. This, not grabby families or "nightmare parents" is the genesis of the OCR complaint situation. When parents feel backed against the wall and that their child is suffering and not getting the education that they need to live a healthy, productive life to the fullest of their potential they will eventually, despite all the social and peer pressure to just go-along-get-along -- they will fight.

Students that were previously sent to special day at CHC are now kept in new, pilot, on-site special day programs. These programs are new, they are cross-categorical, and they are not as good as those that have been run for many years with expertise by CHC. "Cross-categorical" means that children with different diagnoses are grouped together, and often this means that the child with anger management or ADHD/impulse control is in the same room with the child who is targeted and has ED issues. The quality of these new experimental pilot special day programs varies wildly by location and by teacher. Some are better than others. Some are Lord of the Flies.

These programs were put together very quickly when the funding formula for special education changed and instead of going to the county the money came directly from the state to the district. Previously it cost the district little to send a child out to a special day class that received county funding. Now the district has dollar signs in its eyes as it can keep those dollars that it does not spend on special day placement and reallocate them elsewhere in the special ed program or even for other Title I needs.

Aha, said Kevin Skelly -- we can force people to accept whatever we are offering and save money. Let's do what we did in Poway where we were sued by 25 families who did not want to accept the Skelly Special Day program.

Students who are very bright but suffer from anxiety or depression are not able to receive the same quality of education in some of these new, quickly hacked together pilot programs that were created to save money for the district. Students who are vulnerable and shy may share a desk with those with conduct disorders -- a near perfect storm for bullying. Students with special needs are now spending gym and recess with regular ed students who have the opportunity to bully them, whereas before they might have been at Esther Clark in a protected environment with other special ed students.

There is no perfect solution for special education students. But there are better and worse situations. The arrival of Kevin Skelly and the departure of Carol Zepecki signaled a move to the worse end of that spectrum in Palo Alto and triggered the current wave of OCR complaints.

It should not take a change in leadership to effect a change of tone toward parents of disabled students. Dr. Skelly should be able to figure out how he has mismanaged the situation and fix it. Unfortunately he is probably not emotionally mature enough to do that and has climbed into the bunker. The board appears to have joined him there and at this point, it is likely that only litigation and more journalistic expose will fix a very broken system.

Before you all start posting about how our high test scores prove that the district management is not severely troubled, please note that I am writing about disabled students and their program cannot be judged by the same criteria as that of the regular education students. This group of students must be judged by other factors -- are they thriving by whatever individual criteria are set for that child's success? By any measure PAUSD's stance toward those with disabilities is a failure. It requires major retooling.

That, Dr. Skelly is why you are facing all these OCR complaints. Not because of "nightmare parents" or overreaching feds or confusing laws or the bogeyman of Ken Dauber or Bill Johnson or whatever theories you may have. It is because you have terribly, horribly, badly mishandled special education and parents will fight to the death for their children.

Now you know.


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Posted by anonymous parent and lawyer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2013 at 9:50 am

Below is the link and article about Dr. Skelly's Poway Doctrine. In Poway they actually sued the parents to force them to accept IEPs that they didn't agree with, and forced parents to sue the district to dispute district assessments and placements. Please note two important things about the story. First, Kevin Skelly's quote will be chillingly familiar to PAUSD parents -- "we have high test scores, great teachers, and there is no problem! All is well." The other is that parents of special ed students started resorting to lawsuits and complaints to OCR during Kevin Skelly's tenure as the assistant superintendent in charge of special education.

Special education is not an area Kevin Skelly understands or cares about. To him, what matters is high test scores, elite college admissions, and whoop-de-do about how great it is. He is particularly bad at this and ended up being despised by Poway's special education parents. Now PAUSD is having very similar problems. We have also had a terrible time convincing him that Gunn needed to change to be more supportive and offer more social-emotional services. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Web Link

[Portion removed due to copyright infringement.]


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Posted by anonymous parent and lawyer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2013 at 10:09 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Sorry about the copyright issues. Here's a fair use quote: "some parents told 10News that Poway's special education program is a wasteland where kids are dumped. They said it deserves a failing grade, according to 10News. Parents and students said the district doesn't know what to do about kids who are not mentally disabled, but who cannot learn in a regular classroom setting." The story goes on to say that the district has been suing students whose parents don't want their children in the special education program.

"Lindsey Stewart took the fight all the way to the ninth circuit court of appeals. "There's actually three major law firms that are fighting me," she said. PUSD is fighting her with a vengeance by racking up more than $400,000 in legal bills in the Stewart case.But the legal battles don't end with Stewart. Evalyn Smith's children and dozens of other students have been sued or threatened with lawsuits by the district, according to 10News. "It blows my mind how they could sue a student to force them into a special education class," Smith said. Smith said the district has to stop lumping all students together in a "one-size-fits-all" special education program."

Asked to comment, Skelly said that 25 lawsuits was an acceptable, even low number, and blamed it on the state and federal government for not giving PUSD sufficient funds to educate the disabled: ""The federal government and the state government do not give us enough money to meet the needs of specialized students," Skelly said.







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Posted by disagree
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 15, 2013 at 11:16 am

"That, Dr. Skelly is why you are facing all these OCR complaints. Not because of "nightmare parents" or overreaching feds or confusing laws or the bogeyman of Ken Dauber or Bill Johnson or whatever theories you may have. It is because you have terribly, horribly, badly mishandled special education and parents will fight to the death for their children."

I completely disagree with this quote. I think all of the listed theories are why things are the way they are.

I do agree that Carol Zepecki handled things a lot better than the current staff.


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Posted by LD student parent
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2013 at 11:43 am

It is likely no coincidence that Skelly's "hand-pick" for principal, Chris Grierson, is one of the focal points of the current district problem of mismanagement of procedures for special ed students.

He was my LD daughter's math teacher at Jordan before becoming a principal at Duveneck. At her SST meeting, first he actually had to be hushed twice during the meeting because he was talking to his seatmate about the new computer he'd bought instead of contributing, or listening, to the proceedings. (My husband has run many professional meetings, and when both of the administrators present just ignored Grierson's side-chat, asked him to please be quiet, as my husband couldn't hear the proceedings. He'd never before, at any professional meeting, had to hush an adult twice.)

When it came to Grierson's turn to speak, his only answer to helping my daughter with her documented learning disorders (she'd been in a elementary school IEP) was that she wasn't trying hard enough and needed to put her nose to the grindstone. The contempt and arrogance in his voice, on this and other occasions, spoke for themselves about his sympathy and understanding of LD students. Thus, it was no surprise to my family to see him embroiled in the current problem.

Employees are a reflection of the people who and promote them. Grierson worked for Milliken, who was the principal at Jordan at the time, and was promoted by Skelly.


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Posted by Enough is Enough
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 15, 2013 at 4:20 pm

When is Skelly leaving hand by hand with Holly Wade and Huertas, why are they taking so long in to pack. We need someone who cares, not who saves and spends only in what they want. We should start our new school year Skelly, Baker, Huertas, Gallagher free. Go suit someone else, not special ed. kids and parents.


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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm

It's easy to read these stories and feel sorry for the "victims". However, we cannot read between the lines. I know that regular, normal children are bullied at times, and students who are different are bullied too. That said, I know that sometimes bullying is provoked by students who have behavioral issues. If a child is continually disruptive, wanes the patience of other students and staff, there is only so much patience by all. Sure, every child has the right to public school. But does a child who continually disrupts and bothers others deserve infinite patience by all? Why should one child take all the attention from the teacher? Is that fair to the other students? If a child is put into the mainstream classroom, the child should act as a mainstream child, otherwise the child should be put into a classroom with LD students. One of my children has learning issues and has to work harder than other students to keep up with academics. We don't make any demands that the school baby him. Why do people think that these LD students should be accepted as they are? They need to help themselves too. And the parents need to help their child in any way they can, whether it's counseling, tutoring, etc., not point fingers at the schools [portion removed.] After all, who is responsible for the student? The parents, of course. LD students require more effort by parents for them to succeed.


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Posted by If you are "normal" I don't want to be
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jun 15, 2013 at 5:24 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by J. Swift
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jun 15, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Parent's post is obviously satire. Look at these lines:
"If a child is put into the mainstream classroom, the child should act as a mainstream child, otherwise the child should be put into a classroom with LD students."
"Sure, every child has the right to public school. But does a child who continually disrupts and bothers others deserve infinite patience by all?"
"Why do people think that these LD students should be accepted as they are?"
Nicely done, speaking as someone who appreciates the form. The previous poster should develop a more sharply tuned wit.


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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 15, 2013 at 6:32 pm

J. Swift - I don't think Parent's post was meant to be satire, I think parent was perfectly serious. Many parents and students don't want to be "bothered" by disruptive or disabled students. They have their eyes on the prize - a top college out of PAUSD. Skelly walks a fine line in that regard because most/many parents values what he is being called out a valuing to highly, great test scores and placements in top schools.

PAUSD is no different than most other districts and from my experience, better than most. Bullying and harassment is terrible and there is no excuse for what happened to the Terman student. But if the adults involved are not clear on what constitutes bullying (from a legal standpoint) how on earth can we expect a middle school student to know what is federally illegal bullying and what is simply being a little s*** like a lot of middle school kids.

If you are tall, attractive and athletic in middle school you are golden. If you are short, under-developed, quiet, quirky, have braces, stutter etc. you are a target. If you are a kid that is annoying, hard to work with as part of a group, or even the slightest bit different, middle school is hard. And how are fellow students able to know whether their classmate is being a pain because that is their age appropriate behavior or if they act as they do because of a disability if they don't know a kid is disabled.

More adults in a classroom help, but if you have an aide, you are labeled special ed and most middle school kids want no part of that. Its a tough problem.


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Posted by Parent is a horrible person
a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jun 15, 2013 at 8:32 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Agree parent sounds pretty horrible
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 17, 2013 at 3:08 pm

(I think J. Swift was being satirical :)

@paly parent: I assume you agree with those I've heard say middle school is supposed to be terrible. "If you are tall, attractive and athletic in middle school you are golden. If you are short, under-developed, quiet, quirky, have braces, stutter etc. you are a target."

We can indeed teach our kids to be nice to everyone, whether they are annoying due to personality or other issues, they all have the potential to be decent kids. I acknowledge my kids are pretty privileged, not tall but athletic with highly educated parents. So even more I feel the need teach them to be compassionate, understanding, and for pete's sake not to bully anyone. Even when my own kid was the target of someone on the autism spectrum ((hit, threatened with scissors, yelled at), and complained to me how much the child annoyed him and others, he knew enough not to be mean to this kid. Not because he had special needs, but because you just shouldn't be mean, period. And this was at 8 years old.

Perhaps it's easier to do this since we aren't in PA schools?


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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2013 at 3:44 pm

@ Agree. Great example. Awesome kid.

But here's a question that treads on some people's sensitivity border. Child is targeted by an autistic student, weathers the situation and does not respond in kind. Should that child be accused of bullying because he/she no longer wants to associate (whether in the classroom, lunch, playground, etc.) with the autistic student?

What is the minimum age requirement for turning the other cheek?

We are talking about children - even if HS age. They still are children and are still developing their minds and their actions. Certainly are not perfect - despite everyone's expectations.


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Posted by Agree
a resident of Mountain View
on Jun 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I think there is a difference between not associating, and not responding. I also think the term bullying is used way to often - although I did use it. I would not consider little kids, or most kids, bullies, just needing some time to mature, and I appreciated that my school met "crimes" with reasonable consequences and lots of discussion with all parties involved.

Anyway, I guess you mean if someone has alienated everyone, should others still have to sit with them, etc. I don't think any kid should be forced to associate with another, no matter what age. But they should be taught how to be civil, respectful, etc. and the adults in the school should be models of this. I do hope by HS each quirky person has found a buddy, but I'm guessing not.

This really does not have to do with the law or the lawsuit of course.


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