This story is part of an in-depth package of stories on the subject of bullying in Palo Alto schools. For links to all the stories, follow this link.
On Jan. 16, 2012, the parents of a Palo Alto student filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights against the Palo Alto Unified School District. The parents alleged disability-based discriminatory harassment by a teacher and also subsequent acts of retaliation by school officials in response to the concerns the parents raised about the teacher, according to the student's mother, who provided the Weekly with a copy of the complaint. The student involved had a diagnosed disability and Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Allegations of civil-rights violations included claims that the student was unfairly penalized for disability-related excused school absences. The school had already lowered grades, reduced class credits and was threatening further grade and credit reductions, along with a "modified" diploma if the student's disability-related absences continued.
The complaint also claimed the district refused to discuss accommodations to compensate for the student's disability-related absences, which would have provided the student with equal opportunity to participate in and demonstrate mastery of the curriculum. In emails to the district and in the complaint, the mother had proposed multiple possible accommodations to achieve these goals, including alternative instructional strategies such as home-based tutoring, interactive web-based programs and digital audio recordings of classroom instruction.
In another alleged retaliatory act, the school also suggested that it might force a change in the student's school placement, which the complaint claimed was inappropriate, uncalled for and in violation of the student's right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).
The Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into these allegations, and according to the mother, within a few weeks the district agreed to meet the concerns set out in the complaint. No formal "resolution agreement" was entered into between the district and the federal agency; the district's agreement (which included reversing lowered grades and credits, retaining the student's placement, and accepting the parents' proposed accommodations) was documented in the student's updated Individualized Education Program and also later in an Office for Civil Rights "closure letter," according to the mother.
Soon after the early agreement was reached, however, the district engaged in further ongoing acts of retaliation in violation of its agreement, according to the mother and as documented in emails to the Office for Civil Rights. These retaliatory acts included multiple renewed threats to change the student's placement. According to the mother, further interventions by the federal agency were required to correct these continuing breaches over the course of the next few months. This process of "holding the district's feet to the fire," as the mother described it, created significant stress and disruption for the student and the student's family.
As the mother stated in her April 24, 2012, email to the Office for Civil Rights, in which she described a series of retaliatory actions taken by the district: "(The student) is entitled to a free public education that is appropriate, not one that is engineered to punish (the student) for having challenged PAUSD ... through an OCR complaint."
By May 1, 2012, the mother reported in an email to the Office for Civil Rights that "most of the problems I referred to in my (earlier e-mail) were taken care of. ... I am concerned about further retaliation as ... PAUSD staff were somewhat hostile (in recent meetings with the student and parents). But we have documented everything I could think of in the IEP, and I will remain vigilant. Thank you very much for your quick response to my complaint of retaliation. Your intervention certainly did prevent further harm to (the student)."
According to the mother, up until the time of the student's graduation more than a year after the complaint, district staff continued to be "rude and hostile in IEP meetings. The whole experience was nasty right up to the end. It took enormous courage for (the student) to endure."
Catalog of seven complaints since 2011
According to a spokesman from the U.S. Department of Education, between January 2011 and May 10, 2013, the Office for Civil Rights received seven complaints involving the Palo Alto school district, as follows:
Two have been closed: One complaint alleged discrimination on the basis of sex in 2011; the other (described above) alleged disability discrimination in 2012;
Two complaints were resolved with resolution agreements (one with the Terman Middle School student, and the other involving 504 eligibility): Both alleged disability discrimination, and both resolution agreements are currently under monitoring by the Office for Civil Rights to ensure full implementation; and
Three complaints are currently under investigation: Two complaints alleged disability discrimination (one at Duveneck Elementary and the other at a middle school); and one complaint alleged different treatment on the basis of race).
It is hard to know how this number compares to other school districts' because the Office for Civil Rights does not publicly post data by district. At a recent informational event held at Ohlone Elementary School featuring two Office for Civil Rights attorneys, one audience member asked how Palo Alto's complaint record compares to other districts in California, suggesting that Palo Alto is "night and day" better than the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example. Office for Civil Rights attorney James Wood said he wouldn't be able to address the question "because it would involve looking at current investigations."
The Weekly has not attempted to find out directly from other districts the number of complaints filed against them with the Office of Civil Rights.
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