Palo Alto school board vice president Barbara Mitchell on Sunday escalated her attack on the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. In an interview with the Daily Post, Mitchell accused OCR of "pulling middle school students out of class and interviewing them without notifying their parents."
But internal PAUSD documents contradict Mitchell. These documents show that parents of students who were interviewed at Terman Middle School about the bullying of a disabled student were asked to consent prior to the interviews. According to Assoc. Supt. Charles Young, Terman Middle School "parents were informed and were able to dismiss their children from the interviews if desired" (see Web Link).
OCR requested and received signed consent forms prior to the student interviews. According to a news story published on June 14 in the Weekly, Terman staff sent out notices to parents and received signed consent forms for students to be interviewed. "In preparation for the Terman student interviews, documents show that [OCR attorney Shilpa] Ram asked the school to send out notices to parents of all students who had been in the complainant's classes the previous year. The school then gave Ram a list of students with signed consent forms; from that list, Ram put together student interview groups of 4-6 from each class, with 35 minutes allotted to each group" (see Web Link).
OCR rules forbid interviewing minor students without parental consent except for questions "of a general nature" not attributed to any particular student. However, school districts can require parental consent even in those circumstances. See Web Link, section 602(d)(4). Without parental consent, "OCR will not interview the child."
Mitchellâ€™s accusations against the agency follow on the heels of an OCR decision to open a â€œCompliance Reviewâ€ into the districtâ€™s handling of sexual harassment at Paly following the publication of a story entitled â€œRape Cultureâ€ in the Verde magazine. The story recounted the prevalence of sexual violence-based harassment and bullying at the district high school. Under certain circumstances, OCR does not require an individual complaint to review district compliance with federal civil rights laws. (See OCR rules linked above, section 501).
After receiving a June 2 letter from OCR informing the district of the Paly sexual harassment Compliance Review, Mitchell sent a memorandum to the districtâ€™s lawyers and to Board President Dana Tom and Superintendent Skelly that accused OCR of "strong arming" agreements with PAUSD. Mitchell also asked the district's lawyers how PAUSD could prevent OCR from pursuing compliance reviews without an individual complaint (see Web Link and Web Link).