Along with many Palo Alto residents, I was disappointed to learn last week that the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) found that PAUSD violated the civil rights of a disabled child by failing to protect the student from disability-based bullying and harassment. The troubling facts of this case as found by federal investigators, are that a disabled child was repeatedly physically and verbally assaulted and district staff did not effectively intervene to stop the bullying, despite the family's persistent complaints.
We Can Do Better Palo Alto has for the last several years advocated for progress on the issues that are raised by this case: student social and emotional health, student civil rights, site-based control, and transparency in governance. At last Tuesday's school board meeting I and several other parent leaders and members of We Can Do Better Palo Alto called for an independent, impartial investigation into how this happened. We believe this step is critical to restoring public confidence in our school leadership.
So far, the school board has responded only by expressing regret, and by scheduling a closed meeting next Tuesday afternoon to discuss this case with the superintendent. The public will not be able to attend.
This week, another previously undisclosed resolution agreement between OCR and PAUSD has come to light, this one from October. Once again, the Superintendent communicated the agreement to Board members only after press inquiries last week, in a letter to the board dated February 14. The October case concerns failure to comply with requirements for 504 accommodations for disabled students.
A post to the We Can Do Better Facebook page puts this in national context: Web Link
As that post details, OCR very rarely finds against a district as it has with PAUSD. In only 1% of similar complaints over the past 4 years has such a finding been made. According to OCR data, PAUSD is one of only 15 public school districts in the country over the last 4 years found by OCR to have violated federal civil rights law for disability based harassment. OCR reports that of the 1513 complaints received over that period, only 240 required any OCR involvement. Of those, 119 were resolved through an Early Complaint Resolution process that was offered to PAUSD but not accepted by PAUSD, and another 87 were settled after an investigation began but before a finding of noncompliance, an opportunity also rejected by PAUSD. The remaining handful of cases, including PAUSD, settled only after the investigation concluded with a determination that federal civil rights law had been violated. Most of these are poor or rural districts.
Why did PAUSD choose not to resolve the case earlier? That decision has likely exposed the district to significant financial liability, as well as delaying help for the disabled victim of bullying who is at the center of the case. Unfortunately the board did not have chance to weigh in on this decision before a finding of noncompliance with the law.
At last week's board meeting, Dr. Skelly stated that he did not inform the board because he was "embarrassed" by the finding. He then stated in a February 14 letter to school board members that he "did not see the significance of the resolution agreement being signed" because such agreements were new to him. (See Web Link).
Dr. Skelly does have some prior experience with bullying cases and civil rights violations, however, as he was Associate Superintendent in Poway when that district lost a landmark civil rights bullying harassment case, Donovan v. Poway Unified (see Web Link). That case was the first case ever to hold a school liable under the California Education Code for failing to protect students from peer harassment (in that case based on sexual orientation), in part because of a failure by district officials to ensure that schools followed the district's complaint procedures. In that case, the plaintiffs received three quarters of a million dollars in damages and attorney's fees, due to the fact that the district failed to intervene despite repeated complaints -- a fact pattern similar to the OCR findings in its PAUSD investigation. Indeed, the Poway precedent will probably figure in any future litigation against PAUSD under state anti-discrimination law.
PAUSD currently has 6 board polices (1312.1, 1312.3, 5121, 5415.3, 5415.7 and 5415.9) and 3 sets of administrative regulations (1312.1, 1312.3, and 5415.7) that cover the bullying case investigated by OCR, yet according to OCR none of these were implemented by staff. The district has a designated Coordinator for Nondiscrimination under one of these policies (BP 5145.3) and a designated Compliance Officer under another (AR 1312.3) [both of whom are Associate Superintendent Charles Young] yet neither of these policies was enforced.
Accountability and progress depend on a full, fair, and transparent understanding of what happened so that we can take steps to make sure that it doesn't happen again. I have no doubt that all of the district staff involved care deeply about bullying and students' civil rights. That fact only underscores the need to understand how these mistakes could have been made. We will renew our request for a full, impartial and independent investigation of this situation at the next school board meeting, on Tuesday evening. Hopefully the school board will agree with us that transparency and accountability require an honest reporting of the facts.