News

Board members want more info on bullying case

School board members say they're reconstructing events but express confidence in staff to 'learn and move forward'

Palo Alto school board members this week said they want more information on what went wrong in a 2010-11 middle-school bullying case that led to federal civil-rights findings against the school district.

Even as the district moves to clarify its anti-bullying policy to comply with a resolution agreement reached in December with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, board members in separate interviews Wednesday said they personally are working to reconstruct what happened in the case or have asked school district staff to do so.

"I've pored through hundreds of pages, and I think each board member is doing the same, so we can surface the relevant questions and learn from things we wouldn't normally be involved with at the board level," board Vice President Barb Mitchell said.

All five members stressed they were constrained in fully discussing the Office for Civil Rights findings because of the need to protect the student's confidentiality.

"My hope would be there's a recognition that the whole story isn't public," Mitchell said. "I'd ask people to reserve judgment."

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Following an investigation that included interviews with more than 40 students and staff at a Palo Alto campus, the Office for Civil Rights found that the school district violated a student's civil rights by failing to properly investigate and respond to the student's and family's ongoing complaints of bullying.

The bullying was related to the student's disability, which had to do with the student's inability to interpret social cues, the Office for Civil Rights said.

Several board members Wednesday said they would welcome clarification from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on its investigation.

"It'd be great to hear from the OCR," board President Dana Tom said. "We'd love to have the OCR at some level provide some information and context."

Mitchell said that she personally would put in a call to the OCR, asking for assistance.

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She disputed, however, whether the investigation of the district's handling of the case could be characterized as "rare," as some parents in the district have alleged.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she considers the Office for Civil Rights report to be the basis for determining what information is needed from the district.

"The board needs to direct staff on fact gathering to see how these things (in the OCR report) came to be, what processes didn't happen and why, and how we can change them so that they will," Caswell said.

Board members reiterated their disappointment that Superintendent Kevin Skelly had not fully informed them earlier about details of the federal investigation and the resolution agreement.

"We didn't know that the report had come in or that the superintendent had signed the agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, and that wasn't good," Caswell said. "It's important for the community to know the process was going on.

"Should we have asked more questions? Yes."

Board member Camille Townsend stressed the need for a policy requiring that only elected board members, not district staff, be authorized to sign agreements with other government agencies.

At a Feb. 26 school board meeting, a school district lawyer and district parents presented clashing perspectives on the handling of the case.

Attorney Laurie Reynolds called the investigation a "very productive, collaborative, fruitful process" ending with the district's agreement to revise its anti-bullying protocols.

But members of the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto charged Reynolds with mischaracterizing the facts and said "letters of finding" by the Office for Civil Rights against a school district are extremely rare.

Board members indicated Wednesday they remain confident in Reynolds' advice and in the district staff's ability to "learn (from the Office for Civil Rights case) and move forward."

"I work from a strengths-based perspective, and for me this is an exciting opportunity for how we can move forward," said board member Heidi Emberling, who was elected in November.

Rather than having different anti-bullying curricula at the 12 elementary schools, Emberling said she thought the programs should "come to alignment so kids have shared language and they can move to middle school and high school. And at those levels those programs should be more standardized."

Nonetheless, Emberling said that she is still expecting information from the school district about its handling of the case so that the board can reflect on what transpired.

"I'd like to see another report now that the district staff is looking into it. They need time to figure out what happened.

"I think reporting back to the board is understood," she said.

Noting Brown Act restrictions on board members talking with one another outside of public meetings, Tom said media coverage of the case has outpaced the board's ability to provide timely responses, since it meets just twice a month.

"When I look at our district I see a lot of staff members working very hard trying to do their honest best," Tom said.

"It's my responsibility to chase down the facts and figure out where I think things land, but what's most important to me is that they learn from what happened and we improve our district.

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Board members want more info on bullying case

School board members say they're reconstructing events but express confidence in staff to 'learn and move forward'

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Mar 8, 2013, 9:04 am

Palo Alto school board members this week said they want more information on what went wrong in a 2010-11 middle-school bullying case that led to federal civil-rights findings against the school district.

Even as the district moves to clarify its anti-bullying policy to comply with a resolution agreement reached in December with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, board members in separate interviews Wednesday said they personally are working to reconstruct what happened in the case or have asked school district staff to do so.

"I've pored through hundreds of pages, and I think each board member is doing the same, so we can surface the relevant questions and learn from things we wouldn't normally be involved with at the board level," board Vice President Barb Mitchell said.

All five members stressed they were constrained in fully discussing the Office for Civil Rights findings because of the need to protect the student's confidentiality.

"My hope would be there's a recognition that the whole story isn't public," Mitchell said. "I'd ask people to reserve judgment."

Following an investigation that included interviews with more than 40 students and staff at a Palo Alto campus, the Office for Civil Rights found that the school district violated a student's civil rights by failing to properly investigate and respond to the student's and family's ongoing complaints of bullying.

The bullying was related to the student's disability, which had to do with the student's inability to interpret social cues, the Office for Civil Rights said.

Several board members Wednesday said they would welcome clarification from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on its investigation.

"It'd be great to hear from the OCR," board President Dana Tom said. "We'd love to have the OCR at some level provide some information and context."

Mitchell said that she personally would put in a call to the OCR, asking for assistance.

She disputed, however, whether the investigation of the district's handling of the case could be characterized as "rare," as some parents in the district have alleged.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said she considers the Office for Civil Rights report to be the basis for determining what information is needed from the district.

"The board needs to direct staff on fact gathering to see how these things (in the OCR report) came to be, what processes didn't happen and why, and how we can change them so that they will," Caswell said.

Board members reiterated their disappointment that Superintendent Kevin Skelly had not fully informed them earlier about details of the federal investigation and the resolution agreement.

"We didn't know that the report had come in or that the superintendent had signed the agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, and that wasn't good," Caswell said. "It's important for the community to know the process was going on.

"Should we have asked more questions? Yes."

Board member Camille Townsend stressed the need for a policy requiring that only elected board members, not district staff, be authorized to sign agreements with other government agencies.

At a Feb. 26 school board meeting, a school district lawyer and district parents presented clashing perspectives on the handling of the case.

Attorney Laurie Reynolds called the investigation a "very productive, collaborative, fruitful process" ending with the district's agreement to revise its anti-bullying protocols.

But members of the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto charged Reynolds with mischaracterizing the facts and said "letters of finding" by the Office for Civil Rights against a school district are extremely rare.

Board members indicated Wednesday they remain confident in Reynolds' advice and in the district staff's ability to "learn (from the Office for Civil Rights case) and move forward."

"I work from a strengths-based perspective, and for me this is an exciting opportunity for how we can move forward," said board member Heidi Emberling, who was elected in November.

Rather than having different anti-bullying curricula at the 12 elementary schools, Emberling said she thought the programs should "come to alignment so kids have shared language and they can move to middle school and high school. And at those levels those programs should be more standardized."

Nonetheless, Emberling said that she is still expecting information from the school district about its handling of the case so that the board can reflect on what transpired.

"I'd like to see another report now that the district staff is looking into it. They need time to figure out what happened.

"I think reporting back to the board is understood," she said.

Noting Brown Act restrictions on board members talking with one another outside of public meetings, Tom said media coverage of the case has outpaced the board's ability to provide timely responses, since it meets just twice a month.

"When I look at our district I see a lot of staff members working very hard trying to do their honest best," Tom said.

"It's my responsibility to chase down the facts and figure out where I think things land, but what's most important to me is that they learn from what happened and we improve our district.

Comments

parent
Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 10:19 am
parent, Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 10:19 am

"I'd like to see another report now that the district staff is looking into it. They need time to figure out what happened.

"I think reporting back to the board is understood," she said.

Heidi Emberling is such a disappointment. She says she wants the district to investigate itself?! What?! And then say says that she thinks that she doesn't even need to tell Skelly that he has to report his "self-investigation" back to the board because "reporting to the board is understood"?!!

Are you kidding? He didn't report to the board. That's what he did not do. He did not do that on TWO DIFFERENT OCR investigations and reports. Now you say that you think it's just "understood."

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


Townsend-Should-Resign-Today
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 10:41 am
Townsend-Should-Resign-Today, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 10:41 am

> Board member Camille Townsend stressed the need
> for a policy requiring that only elected board members,
> not district staff, be authorized to sign agreements with
> other government agencies.

Camille Townsend reveals her complete lack of how information flow in a large, organization should work. In this case, she should be pressing for a “policy” that requires the District Staff to reveal, in writing, any/all interactions with other government agencies within five working days. Status of each of these interactions should be provided the Board (and the public) at least once every thirty days. Resolution should be revealed within fourteen working days.

In the case of an elected Board of Trustees, there should be at least the signatures of the Board President, the Superintendent, and the appropriate Administrator (such as the so-called Compliance Officer) or school principal where the initial problem originated that resulted in the oversight of the school district by a higher authority.

Townsend does not seem to have any sense of how authority/chain-of-command structures should be formed in publicly-funded organizations—like public schools.

Townsend’s claim that “experience matters”, which she used to ride to a 3rd term on the Board, seems to reflect that “gingo-ism matters” more here in Palo Alto, than real experience.


Gunn parent
Gunn High School
on Mar 8, 2013 at 10:56 am
Gunn parent, Gunn High School
on Mar 8, 2013 at 10:56 am

We are at sea in a leaky boat. The only board member who seems to have a clue about how to respond is Melissa Caswell:

"The board needs to direct staff on fact gathering to see how these things (in the OCR report) came to be, what processes didn't happen and why, and how we can change them so that they will," Caswell said.

That is different from what she said at the last board meeting, when she refused requests for an investigation because OCR had already done it.

Dana Tom wants to hear from OCR: "It'd be great to hear from the OCR," board President Dana Tom said. "We'd love to have the OCR at some level provide some information and context." Doesn't Tom realize that PAUSD has already heard from OCR? Is he looking for a different message? Perhaps that rather than an investigation and finding of violation of civil rights law, that OCR picked us to be their special friend? That may be how Laurie Reynolds wants to spin it, but it's not true.

Heidi Emberling is giddy over the "exciting opportunity" to trust district staff to clean up the mess that they created.

Tom says, ""When I look at our district I see a lot of staff members working very hard trying to do their honest best." If this is their honest best, they should be fired.

The school board had the chance to win back public confidence with honesty and an willingness to let some sunlight in. Only Caswell seems to have an inkling that that is the only course that makes sense here. PAUSD's reputation for being well-managed and well-run is hanging in the balance here and that's something we're going to miss when it's gone.


parent
Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:15 am
parent, Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:15 am

Gunn Parent: "Perhaps that rather than an investigation and finding of violation of civil rights law, that OCR picked us to be their special friend."

Yes, don't they know who we are?

LOL.


cd
College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:29 am
cd, College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:29 am

"The school board had the chance to win back public confidence"
Sorry, the board hasn't lost public confidence. It doesn't need to "win it back".


Pretty Much
Community Center
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:31 am
Pretty Much, Community Center
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:31 am

The name:

We Can Do Better Palo Alto

just about says it all.

Wish Dauber had won. At least he would have been a voice for accountability for this do-nothing board.


dvd
Community Center
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:32 am
dvd, Community Center
on Mar 8, 2013 at 11:32 am

@cd:

Maybe not your confidence. But I bet you're outnumbered on this one.


parentP
Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm
parentP, Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm

It's no wonder the teachers are disheartened with their salary negotiations. Leadership lapses like this one, and the costly litigation and professional development responses they generate, eat up a lot of money that could be used to reward employees. So now we're gonna create new positions at the district office in answer to this crisis? Just what we need, even more money funneled away from direct contact with our students.


daniel
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 8, 2013 at 12:10 pm
daniel, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 8, 2013 at 12:10 pm

cd, I'll bet you that any person who reads about this scandal will lose confidence in the board lickety-split. Those who haven't lost confidence in the board are those who haven't had a chance to find out about this.


Let the supe go
Palo Alto High School
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm
Let the supe go, Palo Alto High School
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


cd
College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm
cd, College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:17 pm

@dvd
How many turned up at Skelly's performance review last week? One person? The real, physical numbers don't show that the board has lost public confidence.


Wondering?
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm
Wondering?, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm

> how many people turned up at Skelly's performance review?

How many people knew that it was open to the public? Was there a general invitation offered by the Board?


Was this session recorded for people to watch, who otherwise had to work?

Expecting people to attend every meeting that the school district, or the City holds, during the day, is out of the question for virtually everyone who holds a job.

Wonder why the Board doesn't record/stream these events for people to review at their convenience?


cd
Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:37 pm
cd, Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:37 pm

@Wondering
Everyone who had any interest in attending knew and you saw the result. It's been reported on numerous occasions both on-line and in public.
What did you want, a personal invitation?


Gradma
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:46 pm
Gradma, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Unfortunately Kevin Skelly displayed, during his first five years as Superintendent, he was the worst leader of the PAUSD that I can remember and I go back to the late, great Dr. Newman Walker.

After five years the School Board voted to continue his tenure, perhaps because they were too lazy to go out and find someone else. A weak School Board begets a weak Superintendent.

If it wasn't for Bob Golton's firm hand the PAUSD would be in worse trouble.


parent
Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm
parent, Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:48 pm

@cd

Make your point. Is your point that people are informed about this case and just don't care, that they are uninformed, or something else? Who shows up where when doesn't prove anything. In Palo Alto, everything happens behind the scenes, even complaints about lack of transparency happen in a very untransparent manner.

If people who are so-called "community leaders" and elected officials and former elected officials who are buttonholing and calling members of the board to tell them that this is a crisis and they have to get going and do something about this situation would do so publicly rather than just let the Weekly and We Can Do Better and CAC and SEAN and other advocacy orgs do it, then this would have already been over now. Members of City Council, former school board, former city council -- all of you who are saying privately that this is a mess, and that governance is broken, and that we need an investigation -- the fact that you are saying this privately instead of publicly is not helping. The board obviously is head down in the sand and only public calls for the restoration of public confidence will work. They are thick. They don't get subtlety. As it stands, they just think the paper has some inexplicable vendetta against them and they are headed to the bunker.

While this all burns down, another crisis is happening at Gunn. City leaders, you have to put a stop to this or our youth are going to suffer again. What are you afraid of? Whatever it is it's not worse than what is about to happen.


@cd
College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm
@cd, College Terrace
on Mar 8, 2013 at 1:50 pm

@cd

> How many turned up at Skelly's performance review last week? One person? The real, physical numbers don't show that the board has lost public confidence.

Trust me, had we known, we would have. IN FORCE!

More relevant: How many people at the district cared about the civil rights violation?


cd
Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm
cd, Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:07 pm

@@cd
Had known? The event was talked about numerous times on these forums alone! Next excuse?
Seriously, by all available checks, the board has not lost public confidence. Your hyperbole fails at the most basic litmus tests.


No notice
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm
No notice, Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:08 pm

It isn't as if the public was widely notified about Skelly's performance review. Had we known, most of us would have made the time to attend because it needs to be made known to all of PAUSD how unhappy we are with Kevin Skelly, how badly he has behaved, how unqualified he really is for the job, how bad his people skills are, how he trivializes legitimate problems, how he openly disrespects parents, and on and on and on. The overwhelming majority of us want him replaced, and would have loved to give that input, but almost no one knew about it coming up until after the fact!


cd
Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:22 pm
cd, Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:22 pm

@No Notice,
Produce some real numbers. One person showing up is not an "overwhelming majority". Hyperbole claim is not evidence of support for your position.


parent
Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm
parent, Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:23 pm

No, you prove that it's all hunky dory. I don't know what the "majority" wants. But I know right from wrong and this case is wrong from the top to the bottom.


cd
Barron Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:53 pm
cd, Barron Park
on Mar 8, 2013 at 2:53 pm

@parent
"I don't know what the "majority" wants."
"No Notice" claims he does, he just that he can't show any evidence of it.


ahavil
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on Mar 9, 2013 at 11:03 pm
ahavil, Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on Mar 9, 2013 at 11:03 pm

How can the school board implement a policy that prohibits bullying amongst students when its administrative officials bully their staff members? Ask some of the former and current teachers at Gunn, for example. The administration treats its teachers (and probably classified staff as well) horribly. It has turned into a literal hell there. Too bad what Scott Laurence and Noreen Likins worked so hard to establish has come undone in these past few years. We need better role models at the top of the food chain. The teachers are fantastic if left to function autonomously, which is really unfortunate, because the school should be working in synergy. Practice what you preach, please.


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