Amid tearful recountings by parents of painful school bullying situations, Palo Alto school board members and Superintendent Kevin Skelly Tuesday night apologized and vowed to learn from a recent federal finding that school officials violated a student's civil rights in a local bullying case.
The outpouring by parents, and a few students, at a Board of Education meeting followed publication last week of federal findings that school officials failed properly to investigate and respond to the ongoing bullying of a Palo Alto middle school special-education student in 2010-11.
It coincided with a staff report on the district's months-long efforts to revise its existing bullying policy, which apparently was not followed in the case described in the federal report, issued in December by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
School board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she was "embarrassed" about the bullying in the federal case.
"I wish this hadn't happened... I wish we didn't have this happen to any children at all, not just in our district but anywhere. It's awful to be a person that's targeted."
Caswell said any new procedures should extend beyond keeping track of bullying incidents to circling back with parties later on to see whether the resolution was effective.
Other board members said the bullying stories were painful and "gut-wrenching" and called for better procedures.
"I want to see consistency and I want to see our numbers go down," board member Camille Townsend said.
Skelly apologized to board members for failing earlier to inform them fully of the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) findings and the district's "resolution agreement" with the government.
"When this thing came out I informed you about it, but I didn't give you the report or share the findings of the OCR group, and I should have done that, bottom line," he said.
"I know the effort that was put in there that wasn't captured in the report, but my responsibility was to share it with you and the community and say, 'Hey, we've got an issue, let's go after it.'
"From a transparency issue, I blew it."
Skelly said he was embarrassed by the OCR report, which was dated Dec. 26.
In a "resolution agreement" Skelly signed and dated Dec. 14, he agreed on behalf of the district to implement voluntary remedial steps in bullying policies and procedures, but specified that the district did not admit to any violation of the law.
About 20 community members testified Tuesday night, including a number of parents who told stories of their own children being bullied.
They asked for clearer and more consistent policies throughout the district.
"When I read the article I saw my own family's situation in every word," one mother said.
"I'm hopeful the district will take into account changing policies right now. Earlier it was mentioned the wonderful bullying programs each school has, but I request you provide a universal bullying prevention program to provide consistent language to children so they can all receive the same training and know what to say to each other," the parent said.
Representing its membership of 300 Palo Alto special-education families, the Community Advisory Committee on Special Education called on the district to enact and publicize an anti-harassment policy that includes immediate investigations and clear grievance procedures.
The district should consider hiring an "ombudsperson or parent liaison" to deal with harassment issues or consider using voluntary mediation services offered by the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service, the committee said.
Another parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, cited the federal findings as a failure of a culture in the district that leaves decision-making to individual schools, and called for an independent investigation of what went wrong in the middle school case described in the OCR report.
The group challenged the district's analysis of student survey data that concluded Palo Alto has low bullying rates compared to Santa Clara County as a whole.
Members said Palo Alto's bullying rates are probably about the same as "state and national norms for similar schools."
"This is a total system failure -- there's no other way to describe it," said We Can Do Better member Wynn Hausser, a Gunn parent. We don't need to look at how we compare with other districts. The federal government told us how we're doing and it's a failure.
"We need to speak in plain, honest language about what's going on here."