Editorial: Bullying case reveals systemic problems in school districtPalo Alto school district leaders and parents should be shocked and saddened by the portrait painted in a scathing investigative report from the U.S. Department of Education.
Federal investigation uncovers a disturbing failure to respond to repeated incidents of harassment
The report from the Office for Civil Rights, completed in December and obtained by the Weekly, found that the district violated federal law in the way it handled the ongoing harassment of a middle school special education student.
Without admitting that its actions violated the law, the district entered into a settlement agreement that imposes a detailed list of actions and reforms aimed at correcting the poor practices the investigators uncovered.
In a rare, detailed glimpse into the workings of the school district by an outside agency, school officials are portrayed as not understanding federal discrimination laws, not having good procedures and systems for addressing complaints, not conducting proper investigations and not providing appropriate training to its employees. Most importantly, the district did not stop the bullying or impose any discipline.
The 10-page report and seven-page settlement agreement reflect the results of an extensive Office of Civil Rights investigation, conducted after the family of the Palo Alto student filed a complaint with the office and turned over emails and other materials documenting its repeated attempts to get the school to take action over more than a year.
The report and settlement agreement, with redactions to protect identities, has been posted by the Weekly on PaloAltoOnline.com. The Weekly is also withholding which of Palo Alto's three middle schools were involved to protect the victim, who continues to be enrolled.
If it fully complies with the terms of the settlement agreement the district will not face legal action by the Department of Education. But the family is not a party to the agreement and has the right to bring a civil action against the district if it chooses.
The federal investigation included on-site interviews with students, teachers, counselors and administrators by Office of Civil Rights investigators.
For a district and community often viewed as mired in process, the investigation uncovered a stunning lack of protocols and systems for addressing serious complaints.
It found that school staff members who had knowledge of the harassment were left to their own devices about how to respond and that no single staff member or administrator was designated to investigate and gather information. No records were kept of interviews with the victim or those students involved in the bullying, witnesses were not interviewed and no one compiled all the information relating to the incidents. None of the teaching staff at the school could recall having been informed about the student's repeated reports of bullying nor being asked about what they might know. Requests for an aide to monitor the victim during lunchtime were rejected by the district office and kicked back to the school site, stating in an email that the district "is taking the position that bullying is each site's responsibility" and that the site should "work this out."
As disturbing as the report's revelations are, the response this week by Superintendent Kevin Skelly is equally or more concerning.
He made no apologies nor showed any sign of acknowledging the seriousness of the institutional problems identified by the Office for Civil Rights.
Skelly, who signed the settlement agreement on behalf of the district on December 14, said it "was a chance for us to look at an issue that's important to us — how our students treat each other — and work on making sure that's better. We want to do the best job we can with our students and the Office for Civil Rights has given us some suggestions around that and these are things we'll do. There are some conversations with students we need to have, some communications with parents and administrative training that we'll do."
Sadly, these comments do nothing to boost confidence that Superintendent Skelly or his senior staff acknowledge the severity or significance of the report's findings, or the value of transparency. According to school board president Dana Tom, the board was informed about the settlement agreement earlier this week, almost two months after it was signed and only after the Weekly began asking questions. There has also been no mention of the matter in the informal emailed weekly updates sent to board members by Skelly.
So much for using this case to send a strong message to staff and parents that the culture and practices portrayed in the report were unacceptable, not in keeping with the district's values and aspirations, and that with help from the Department of Education we are committed to fully reforming our practices.
Instead, the only reason the public or school board is finding out about these deficiencies is that the family was brave enough to provide the report to the Weekly.
The school district is doing plenty of good things in the area of bullying prevention and education, and coincidentally the school board will hear an update on the task of developing required bullying prevention policies at its meeting next Tuesday.
Naturally, the school board loves to hear presentations on the district's many accomplishments and celebrate the good work of its employees. But the mishandling of this case exposes some serious problems that we look forward to being addressed fully by the school board and administration as they carry out the required actions under the settlement agreement.