As Palo Alto school officials brace for an inevitable lawsuit stemming from its failure to respond properly to the bullying of a special-education middle school student, the district's handling of the issue became even more bizarre this week.
The school board, which had been kept in the dark by Superintendent Kevin Skelly about an agreement he signed in December with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and all the details of their investigation and findings, met in closed session with its attorneys Tuesday afternoon and then had their first chance to discuss the situation in public at its regular board meeting.
With two weeks having passed since the story of this case became public, and then only after the family of the bullied child released documents to the Weekly, what was the district's plan for explaining to the board and public what happened and why?
Instead of asking for a presentation from the Office of Civil Rights or from those in the district responsible for ensuring that bullying and harassment complaints are investigated and resolved in accordance with laws and district policies, the board and public heard from the district's lawyer, Laurie Reynolds.
To hear the description of events as told by Reynolds, a partner with the Oakland firm of Fagen, Friedman and Fulfrost, the district's experience with OCR over this case was simply fantastic.
She said when the district received the first draft last April of the OCR's list of remedial actions it wanted taken, the district responded by saying they were "great" but wanted to do more than what was being asked. According to Reynolds, "It was kind of an amusing moment," she said. "They were stone silent. They said 'Wow! OK.'"
Reynolds explained to the board that OCR only wanted training done at the one middle school where the victim of bullying had been enrolled, but that the district wanted to do it at all district schools.
But on this point and several others, Reynolds was incorrect, misled the board and the public and engaged in pure obfuscation.
The first draft of the agreement, obtained by the Weekly from the school district, OCR's original language was "The District will provide annual mandatory training on disability-based harassment to all middle and high school site administrators and teaching staff. OCR is available to provide the first training."
The final agreement signed in December, reflecting the enhancements Reynolds described, stated "The District will provide mandatory training on disability-based harassment to all school site administrators in the District. OCR is available to provide the first training." "District site administrators will then train the teachers at their school sites within the first three months of the school year."
It added elementary school principals to those being trained, but removed the requirement for annual training and for the immediate and formal training of teachers. Neither agreement was limited to the one middle school as Reynolds asserted twice in her comments to the board.
The final agreement also reduced the requirements from mandating annual age-appropriate instruction on disability harassment to requiring it for only the next three years.
Reynolds also did the board and public a disservice by suggesting the district had no ability to settle the case with OCR prior to the issuance of findings because the family of the bullied student wouldn't agree to a process called Early Complaint Resolution, which is available when a complaint is first received.
In fact, OCR rules clearly state that at any time during an investigation, the district can opt to enter into a resolution agreement and avoid formal and possible damaging legal findings.
The district's failure to seek such an outcome, done without any input or even knowledge of the school board, may have profound ramifications, because it led to a set of legal findings of non-compliance with federal law that can now be used in litigation against the district.
It is very unfortunate that the school board is now in a position of being let down by both its top administrators and its own law firm, which should have briefed the board on its legal exposure early on in the process, and it is now essential that the board bring in separate counsel to advise it independently.
Credit trustee Melissa Baten Caswell for her admonishment at Tuesday's meeting that the district should never again enter into an agreement in response to an inquiry or investigation from an outside agency without the board's full knowledge and approval.
As the sad saga of the district's handling of this issue continues to unfold, it is important that we not lose sight of the fact that there are real kids and real families who have been traumatized, first by the bullying and then by the systemic failure of the school district to respond properly.
While there is a board governance mess to clean up, there is also the critical need to ensure that district administrators actually follow the policies that the school board has put in place to protect children, and to hold those who don't accountable.
Feb. 8 Palo Alto Weekly article: Feds: School district violated student's civil rights
Feb. 8 Palo Alto Weekly editorial:
Feb. 13 Palo Alto Weekly article:
Feb. 21 Palo Alto Weekly article:
Feb. 27 Palo Alto Weekly article: