Oct. 20, 2011, was no ordinary day at Terman Middle School in Palo Alto. Shilpa Ram and Laura Welp, attorneys from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, set up shop for the day at the school as part of their investigation into alleged civil rights violations arising from the school's failure to stop the bullying of a disabled student. This was a highly unusual event, perhaps the first, in Palo Alto's history.
In a liberal-minded community that prides itself on top-notch schools, high-achieving students and progressive values, the idea of a civil rights violation is anathema. The school district believed it was being unfairly accused and assumed the investigation's outcome would be favorable, according to district documents obtained by the Palo Alto Weekly.
The district's schools feature a wide array of anti-bullying programs and activities and relatively low rates of bullying, according to district summaries of student surveys. In interviews last fall, school principals characterized the incidence of bullying-type behavior on their campuses as ranging from "rare" to "not a big problem really." Terman Principal Katherine Baker told the Weekly: "This is a pretty benign climate here. It's really gentle."
When bullying-type behavior does occur -- which can range from shoving, threatening and making unwelcome sexual contact or comments to name-calling, spreading mean rumors, ganging up and damaging someone's property -- principals report using their professional judgment, skills and discretion on a "case-by-case" basis to investigate what is going on and to work with the students (and often their parents) to resolve the situation.
They tend to use serious discipline sparingly and prefer the opportunity to teach and counsel, except in the more extreme or repeated cases. With regard to suspension, Baker said: "I don't like it. I don't think it's going to help them learn something. But sometimes it drives the message home."
Her sentiments were shared by most of the 13 principals the Weekly interviewed for this story.
Bullying issues traditionally have been viewed as an individual school's responsibility, entrusted to the principals' leadership and allowing for each school's "unique culture" to foster innovative initiatives, according to principals and district staff.
All of this is reassuring to a community that expects the best of its students and schools.
However, the results of the Office for Civil Rights investigation sharply called into question this positive picture. It caused some in the community to re-examine the schools' capacity to deal fairly, effectively and legally with bullying and discriminatory harassment situations and the need for more leadership, training and accountability from the district.
The Office for Civil Rights findings were detailed in an eye-opening, strongly worded, 10-page report describing how, despite persistent appeals by the family and the student, the school failed to provide protection from ongoing disability-based harassment by fellow students during the 2010-11 school year. (See "What civil-rights investigators found at Terman.") The harassment included name-calling referring to the child's disability ("stupid," "slow," "retarded" and "annoying"), peers playing games to avoid contact with the child, the student being told that classmates hated the student and a classmate hitting the student in the face. The harassment was sufficiently serious to create a hostile environment and deny or limit the student's education, according to the report. By spring 2011, the student had developed mental health issues, and the family decided to keep the child home after a doctor advised against going to school as long as the bullying was continuing.
In shining a light on the school's response, the Office for Civil Rights found that school staff did not conduct any organized inquiry of the facts, did not interview known witnesses, did not keep records of interviews, were unfamiliar with laws regarding discriminatory harassment, imposed non-disciplinary and piecemeal measures that proved ineffective, did not educate students about how to relate to peers with disabilities and blamed the victim for problems. The report noted that while the district was not responsible for the actions of a harassing student, it was responsible for its own discrimination in failing to respond adequately. The report concluded that the district's response was not reasonably calculated to end the harassment, prevent it from recurring or eliminate the effect of the hostile environment on the student and thus violated the student's civil rights. The district received the report Dec. 26, 2012.
To address the district's systemic shortcomings, the Office for Civil Rights imposed corrective actions, which were agreed to by the district in a negotiated "resolution agreement" and signed by Superintendent Kevin Skelly on Dec. 14. Its requirements included district training for administrators and school staff regarding the handling of harassment complaints, notifications to parents and students about legal rights and procedures, and districtwide instruction for students about disability harassment over the next three years.
Skelly found the report "embarrassing" and chose not to disclose it or the resolution agreement to the Board of Education or the public. The board and public only found out about these documents after the family gave them to the Palo Alto Weekly for publication on Feb. 8.
The report's release ignited community debate about the significance of the findings and Skelly's role in keeping these findings from public view. Skelly announced at the Feb. 12 board meeting that he "was profoundly sorry that a student was subject to bullying in our school" and vowed to learn from the investigation. On the issue of transparency, raised by his withholding the report, Skelly said, "I blew it" and apologized for that as well.
Skelly added: "We take the safety of our students extremely seriously, and we work hard to provide the best climate for students possible. We don't always live up to that, but it's not for lack of effort on the part of staff or dedication."
The next day, in response to an inquiry from board member Melissa Baten Caswell, Skelly surprised the board with further news of another Office for Civil Rights resolution agreement he had signed in September 2012. This one concerned the district's alleged mishandling of a request by a sixth-grader suffering from environment-induced allergies. The student asked for accommodations under federal disability law that would mitigate the harm caused by conditions at school facilities. Again, as part of this agreement, the district was required to revise its procedures and provide training to administrators.
When news of the second resolution agreement surfaced, Skelly made a second apology to the board, explaining: "We have not had complaint cases go this far in my prior six years at PAUSD -- thus, did not see the significance of the resolution agreement being signed since it was part of a lengthy process we continued to be embroiled in."
"Embroiled" may be the right word for it. Since the February disclosures, the district has found itself on the hot seat regarding:
numerous requests to produce documents regarding Office for Civil Rights complaints and bullying (from the Office for Civil Rights, the Weekly and other media)
mounting legal fees, and controversy over its choice of lawyers and a recent $140,000 annual contract renewal
a months-long process to develop an updated set of district policies and procedures on bullying and discrimination that still have not met with approval from the Office for Civil Rights or the community (see "New district policies and procedures for handling bullying").
controversy over the district's decision to pull out of its agreement to co-sponsor a community event, held May 16, featuring a presentation by Office for Civil Rights attorneys about students' rights and schools' obligations under federal law
an Office for Civil Rights letter of rebuke to the district raising privacy and retaliation concerns about an email sent to parents with the identity of the school (Duveneck Elementary) in one of the Office for Civil Rights open investigations
calls for the district to conduct a Title IX investigation and corrective actions in response to sexual violence and peer harassment revealed in a highly publicized article in Verde (Palo Alto High School's student magazine) about teen "rape culture" in Palo Alto
ongoing public criticism and calls for the firing of top school officials in public comment at board meetings, emails sent to board members, and the Weekly's "Town Square" online forum
In charge of bullying policies and procedures: individual schools or the district?
As trained, neutral outsiders with full access to all school files and witnesses, the Office for Civil Rights attorneys were in a unique position to illuminate the inner workings of a school complaint system in the context of a real-life case. In so doing, the Office for Civil Rights not only validated and gave voice to the complainant but also confirmed what many other families have experienced in their dealings with school officials, bringing their stories to the surface at school board meetings and in Weekly interviews after the federal report's release.
The Weekly conducted more than 100 interviews with parents, teens, educators and other professionals (including psychologists, parent educators and bullying researchers) in connection with this story. Most interviews lasted for an hour or more. Almost all parents and students spoke on condition of anonymity -- not wanting their names or identifying details revealed -- due to privacy concerns about sensitive issues and/or fear of retaliation either from schools or social groups.
As revealed in these interviews, many parents and students have keenly felt the absence of a fair and transparent process to guide their way in making a complaint about inherently distressing situations.
"Many of our children have been victims of bullying, and all have witnessed it," wrote Latoya Baldwin-Clark, Kim Bomar and Sara Woodham-Johnsson, parent co-chairs of PASS (Parent Advocates for Student Success) regarding the Office for Civil Rights report. "Where bullying and harassment occur, there must be a well-understood, transparent and communicated set of procedures, consequences and expectations for all to follow to ensure that the aggressor and the aggressed see fair and appropriate resolution to the situation with follow-up and feedback."
When the Office for Civil Rights report first became public in early February, school board President Dana Tom attributed issues raised in the report to flawed implementation of already existing school board policies and administrative regulations. Board policies and regulations related to bullying and harassment, including a mandated grievance procedure for all such complaints at the school level (see "New district policies and procedures for handling bullying" ), had been sitting on the shelf for years, largely unused by the schools, according to district staff and principals interviewed by the Weekly. This was not new or unique to Terman.
"The principals did not see (the board policies and procedures) as a valuable resource," Brenda Carrillo, district coordinator for student services, explained to the Weekly in late February. That view has now changed, she said, because of the amount of attention brought to the issue. The need for a more consistent, standardized approach to bullying and harassment reports and complaints across the district has been made clear.
Duveneck Principal Chris Grierson told the Weekly in April that he had never reviewed existing board policies or procedures on this topic.
"Like many sites, we exercise our autonomy" to decide the best way to handle reports and complaints of bullying and harassment, he said, adding he was prepared to embrace new district policies and procedures when adopted.
Jordan Middle School Principal Greg Barnes in October 2012 described school flexibility in the prevention and handling of bullying and harassment issues as a "hallmark" of this district, allowing each school to approach it "in the best way they see fit for their particular community."
A 2011 district email quoted in the Office for Civil Rights report affirms the district's position that dealing with "bullying is each site's responsibility."
The individualized school approach is typical of districts in the area, according to Holly Pedersen, a marriage and family therapist with a specialty in bullying prevention, intervention and treatment, and director of the nonprofit Parents Place's bullying prevention programs.
"Mostly it is school by school, and there's not a uniform policy," she said. "Schools have their own particular culture and feel and environment, and so we haven't seen a lot of uniformity."
With legal muscle to back up its findings, the Office for Civil Rights is now directing the district towards more centralized reforms that many parents, bullying professionals and educators have told the Weekly are overdue. As a result, the pendulum now appears to be swinging away from school autonomy when handling bullying and harassment incidents and towards a more standardized districtwide approach.
At the Feb. 12 board meeting, following the Office for Civil Rights report release, Tom signaled this shift towards more district involvement and framed it in terms of positive support to school staff facing a difficult task.
"It's really about having clear procedures to help staff make the positive impact that all want to make. ... Proper handling of bullying is far too challenging, far too complex and far too important to expect anyone to figure it out on the fly."
Comments from other board members and district staff at this meeting also endorsed this change in direction towards more centralized leadership and guidance to the schools on the handling of bullying and harassment incidents in the future.
"It is important for the community to know that we would like to see consistency across the district on this and that we are working towards that," Baten Caswell said at the Feb. 26 board meeting. In a follow-up email to Skelly, she said: "We need to make sure our staff understand (that new policies and regulations) are being created (and that) we expect them to use the processes that are contained in these documents."
These new policies and procedures are being developed by the district in consultation with its lawyers, the Office for Civil Rights, the California Department of Education, the California School Boards Association and selected parent groups. At least three complex versions of new policies and regulations have been produced to date, but a final product has yet to receive Office for Civil Rights approval. Because the federal agency does not answer inquiries from the press, it is difficult to learn what its sticking points are. According to Carrillo, it has not been any one issue, but a lot of back and forth, with the number of agencies involved adding to the complexity and challenge. Last Thursday the district received additional feedback from the Office for Civil Rights and is now reviewing that response. Carrillo said she was "very much looking forward to finalizing these policies and procedures by the fall."
In addition to the hold-up with the Office for Civil Rights, there has been concern expressed in the community about how useable the proposed policies will be.
"This is not a user-friendly document. I doubt it will help parents understand the district's overall goals or processes, or the rights of parents of bullied kids. Parents shouldn't have to hire a lawyer to figure out what the policy means," Bomar, an attorney and PASS co-chair, told the Weekly regarding the third draft. Other parents familiar with this draft also expressed concerns and made suggestions for possible improvements. (See "New district policies and procedures for handling bullying.")
Another question raised by many with regard to this process is whether the district has the political will, capacity and systems in place to provide the leadership, training and monitoring necessary to ensure effective implementation and enforcement of the new board policies and procedures being promulgated. This is new ground for a district unaccustomed to asserting control and accountability over the schools in this area; how that will work in practice remains to be seen, although district officials and principals seem optimistic that together they can achieve consistency districtwide and that benefits will result from that.
Meanwhile, the continued delay in developing new bullying and harassment complaint procedures has left parents and others uncertain where they stand if they want to report a bullying incident. At a recent "Principal's Coffee" at Duveneck on April 17, attended by district officials Charles Young and Carrillo along with about 20 parents, one parent asked: "Is there a process for handling bullying complaints right now?"
Carrillo responded: "Not yet; it's in development." She did not mention the existing set of board policies and procedures already in effect that address these issues.
What went wrong at Terman, district
In the meantime, while many in the community prefer to focus solely on steps moving forward, many others believe that more information about events leading up to the Office for Civil Rights report is still needed to gain full public understanding and accountability.
The main explanation by the district so far has been supplied by district lawyer Laurie Reynolds at a school board meeting on Feb. 26; her advocate's version frustrated many who wanted to hear directly from staff and board members.
Among other things, Reynolds described the Office for Civil Rights investigation as a "very productive, collaborative and fruitful" process. She touted the district's initial positive response to the first draft of the resolution agreement proposed by the federal agency and also the district's offer to do "more" than what was asked, something she said had stunned the federal attorneys.
However, documents obtained by the Weekly show that final agreement overall required less than what the Office for Civil Rights originally proposed. It added training for elementary school principals but removed the requirement of annual training of teachers.
Reynolds did not help her public credibility by later referring to the Office for Civil Rights controversy as a "tiresome, distracting and unproductive loop" in an email to Skelly. Also an Oct. 16, 2012, email from Ram to Reynolds casts doubt on Reynolds' characterization of the process as collaborative.
"Again, I know this has been a difficult situation for everyone and am hopeful, as I'm sure you are, that we will be able to soon achieve a successful resolution to this case," Ram wrote.
In March, school board members (with the exception of Camille Townsend) told the Weekly that they, too, wanted more information on what went wrong in the Terman case and were personally working to reconstruct what happened. But they also said they had confidence in district leaders to learn from the case and move forward.
In response to those calling for an independent investigation, some have argued that an independent probe and its results have already been published in the form of the Office for Civil Rights report.
"We did have an independent organization do an investigation here. It was the Office for Civil Rights -- that was their job," Baten Caswell said at the Feb. 26 board meeting.
To date, the continuing community calls for a broader independent investigation have gone unheeded.
This leaves the public with the Office for Civil Rights report, the scope of which was limited to events alleged in one family's complaint about one school year at Terman. The federal report did not examine how the school district defines, tracks or handles bullying or harassment complaints generally or how the district made its decisions in handling complaints filed with the Office for Civil Rights, including issues of board and public disclosure.
Despite its limited scope, the federal report about what happened at Terman is instructive. Like other complicated bullying cases that can generate conflict between the school and the family, the Terman complaint alleged multiple incidents over many months, with documentation in emails, special-education files containing the student's Individual Education Plan, counselor and administrator notes, medical records and more, all of which required careful review. In addition, federal attorney Ram arranged a packed schedule of interviews at Terman involving 35 students and eight school employees. The interviews ran parallel in two rooms commandeered for the purpose. At different times, Ram also interviewed the complainant and various district officials.
Ram's task, according to Office for Civil Rights procedures (see "Office for Civil Rights: Why is it there and what does it do?"), was to figure out which, if any, of the student's allegations were true by a "preponderance of the evidence." The student had alleged ongoing bullying of several types -- verbal, social and physical -- to the point of causing a hostile learning environment, emotional deterioration and mounting school absences.
The record showed that after trying to work with the school to resolve the problem, the family appealed to district officials and school board members on numerous occasions.
In February 2011, Skelly emailed Terman Principal Baker: "I'm not sure what, if anything, we can do to relieve their concerns."
In March 2011, the family emailed board member Tom for help, citing a recent physical assault on the student. Tom responded: "The (student) who hit (your child) was disciplined, though I cannot give you details. Our district is working to reduce bullying with a variety of programs at our schools. ... The Terman staff has been working to help (your child). Your comments indicate that you do not think that is the case, but I think you would get better results if you assumed good intentions and worked with them to find solutions."
Tom's admonition to "assume good intentions" missed an important point that often occurs in bullying or harassment cases that reach the district staff or board level, according to interviews with parents. Trust among the adults had broken down, for a variety of reasons that the Office for Civil Rights investigation illuminated. The family said they had become disheartened by the school's failure to conduct a thorough investigation, the school's blaming of the student for misperceptions about or contributions to the problem, and, most importantly, the school's failure to stop the bullying.
The family reached out to the district and board because they felt the need for help beyond what the school had offered and felt their pleas at all levels were falling on deaf ears. To be told to "assume good intentions" felt to them like another way of blaming them for their plight.
Tom's reference to bullying-prevention programs also was small consolation to the family, given that their child continued to be bullied; this, too, is a point often missed by school officials who tout prevention programs that in fact have not prevented bullying.
The family responded to Tom: "If whatever they are doing was working, (my child) would not have been punched ... and the bullying would have stopped a long time ago. ... No child should be hurt like (my child has been). We need to create a more protective and supportive environment at all schools."
Later, after release of the Office for Civil Rights report, Tom addressed the same point differently at the Feb. 12 board meeting: "In recent years, there has been emphasis on bullying prevention efforts, which is good. ... But it's not sufficient to look only at prevention because we do have to look at what happens when it occurs, when it will occur, and so I'm glad we're putting more attention to that."
In May 2011, with growing concern, the family sent another email to the school advising that the family's "next step" would be an Office for Civil Rights complaint. In July 2011, the family filed their complaint.
Meanwhile, to prevent further bullying, the family obtained a transfer for their child to another Palo Alto middle school in the fall. This is where the student was attending school as the Office for Civil Rights conducted its investigation at Terman in October 2011.
In preparation for the Terman student interviews, documents show that Ram asked the school to send out notices to parents of all students who had been in the complainant's classes the previous year. The school then gave Ram a list of students with signed consent forms; from that list, Ram put together student interview groups of 4-6 from each class, with 35 minutes allotted to each group. There were six student groups altogether, one from each of four classes, and two from P.E. Ram asked that no school staff or counsel attend the student interviews.
"We have found that the presence of school staff or counsel could unintentionally make some students less willing to share their experiences," Ram wrote in an email to Damian Huertas, the district's special education coordinator.
In addition to the 35 students interviewed, documents further show that Ram also scheduled 45-minute individual interviews with eight school staff, including the school counselor, five teachers, an assistant principal and the principal. Both the district's attorney, Reynolds, and a California Teachers' Association attorney attended each of these staff interviews. Legal bills from Reynolds' firm indicate that the district was billed 11.50 hours for her time that day and a total of nearly 20 hours for that month at a rate of $270 per hour.
In a report to Skelly and the school board as part of a "Confidential Weekly" memo dated Oct. 21, 2011, Associate Superintendent Charles Young described the Terman interviews: "This week our students and staff ... were taken away from the classroom and their work to address and respond to an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint brought against the district on behalf of a student last year."
Young also reported that the day went well.
"The day was long but the attorneys felt like it shed only a positive light on the school and our support of students. Apparently, students shared with investigators how much they liked their school. The results will be available in January."
Young's predictions turned out to be wrong. The Office for Civil Rights called the district in April 2012 to let it know the investigation had concluded and that the school had been found in noncompliance. In another memo to the school board dated April 9, Young described how the district "received the Office for Civil Rights' results over spring break. As a result of the student's disability, we are responsible for corrective action related to discrimination and creating a hostile learning environment. Our attorney is working with the Office for Civil Rights regarding the corrective actions, which are quite lengthy. ... The staff at Terman will be disappointed as they felt they did a great deal of good work to ameliorate the concerns outlined in the parent's initial complaint."
Nowhere in this memo does Young express concern about the student or address how he, the attorneys or the school administrators could have misgauged the situation so completely.
The Office for Civil Rights also advised Reynolds in an April 2012 phone call "that they had found bullying occurred," according to a Feb. 21, 2013, email from Skelly to the Weekly. Legal bills show Reynolds spent 1.6 hours on April 6 teleconferencing with the Office for Civil Rights and researching discrimination issues, and 0.30 hours on April 9 teleconferencing about "OCR draft findings" and resolution agreement. On April 30, she billed three hours for time reviewing the draft resolution agreement, traveling to and from the district office, conferencing about the Office for Civil Rights resolution, and teleconferencing with the agency.
The family, too, was notified in an email from Ram on April 3: "We have completed our investigation ... and identified some compliance concerns."
The next step would be to reach an agreement with the district to address the compliance issues identified, the family was told. From this time until Dec. 26, 2012, a total of nine months, the family did not know if or when to expect a result that might help their child. Meanwhile, they continued to seek an alternate school placement for their child through the Individual Education Plan process governed by special-education laws, as bullying had begun occurring at the new middle school and the family's doctors had advised a more therapeutic placement for the child, according to the family.
It is not clear why it took nine months, from April to December, for the Office for Civil Rights and the district to reach agreement; the district staff attributed delay to the federal agency's slow response time. In May Reynolds billed about four hours for work on the resolution agreement and almost no time between June and October. From October through December, she billed about two hours on the matter.
According to Office for Civil Rights 2012 national statistics, 93 percent of its cases are resolved within six months of complaint filing; the time to reach resolution in this case was well outside the norm.
Also unclear is why the district did not act to avoid the negative "letter of finding" by opting to resolve the case earlier with the Office for Civil Rights. Toughing it out to this late stage in the proceedings is a rare event. According to information provided by the U.S. Department of Education, of the 1,513 disability harassment complaints received nationwide over a four-year period from 2009-2012, only 15 other public school districts (1 percent) waited until after the close of investigation to reach agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, thereby triggering a letter of finding. Six of these were in California, including Santa Rosa, Santa Monica-Malibu, Vallejo, Hemet, Chaffey and Palo Alto.
The vast majority of districts chose instead to reach agreement prior to the close of investigation, thus avoiding the letter of finding and additional political and legal exposure from damaging information the letter might contain. Why the district did not do that in this case, as it did in two other Office for Civil Rights cases it resolved in 2012 (see "Catalog of seven complaints"), remains an unanswered question. Neither Skelly nor the district attorneys will comment, and the school board members seem unaware.
When Reynolds spoke at the Feb. 26 board meeting, she incorrectly said that early resolution would have required the complainant's consent, implying that the student's family may have stood in the way of an early settlement. The Office for Civil Rights "Case Processing Manual" clearly contradicts this: "A complaint may be resolved at any time when, before the conclusion of an investigation, the recipient expresses an interest in resolving the complaint." This point was made at the meeting by We Can Do Better leader Ken Dauber and others and included in the Weekly's editorial after the meeting.
In a May 6 email, at the request of an unnamed board member, Skelly confirmed this understanding in a report he made to the school board on his conversation with Office for Civil Rights Acting Chief Attorney Gayle Sakowski.
"Districts can offer to resolve issues and OCR complaints at any time after the case is open. This process is open and if the district wants to resolve present cases they should contact the person handling the complaint. If district does not think it is at fault that's a decision they can make in terms of the process," Skelly wrote.
If the district does not think it is at fault, in other words, it can take the gamble that the Office for Civil Rights letter of finding will be in its favor. It appears this may have been the motivation for waiting it out in this case, although the basis for that decision is likely to remain confidential due to the attorney-client privilege afforded communications between Skelly and Reynolds.
Also unclear is why the district delayed so long in agreeing to a new school placement for the student involved, despite learning in April 2012 about the Office for Civil Rights' determination that bullying and civil rights violations had occurred. During the time from April 2012 to February 2013, according to the family, the district repeatedly refused to agree to an alternate private therapeutic setting despite several doctors' assessments that such placement was called for.
According to the family, the district continued to recommend that the student stay at the same school and in the same classroom. The family and their doctors believed this had not been working for the child in the past, and with increasing mental health issues, would not work in the future. Towards the end of 2012, the district appeared to agree that the student could no longer attend the school and provided intermittent home tutoring. Still there was no agreement to an alternate private placement; at this point, the doctors recommended a residential facility, according to the family.
The district cannot provide information to the Weekly about its decisions about the student's placement due to legal constraints in disclosing confidential student information.
But just six days after the Weekly first published the Office for Civil Rights report, on Feb. 13, Skelly finally agreed to a residential facility placement for the student.
Case resonates with other Palo Alto families
The shadow cast on the district by the events connected to this case trouble many in the community. The Office for Civil Rights report revealed disturbingly painful details about the usually under-the-radar realities of a school's investigation and response to the bullying of a disabled student.
Many parents and students have shared their stories of bullying or harassment experiences with the Weekly and with school board members.
"The stories I've heard outside of this board meeting and tonight of childhood pain has been gut-wrenching, no question about it," said Tom at the end of the Feb. 12 board meeting.
The stories told to the Weekly run the gamut from positive resolutions to heartbreaking unresolved conflict, with the issue of trust between the parents and the school employees, and whether it broke down or held, often a decisive factor in how the parents and students ultimately view the outcome achieved.
Where the problem has been resolved positively, the need for a different system of procedures and oversight has not been felt. But when relationships go sour between parents and school, and the adults cannot get the help they need to sort it out, as occurred in the case at Terman, the systemic problems exposed can seem significant.
Several parents told the Weekly and the school board that they saw their own story in the Office for Civil Rights report.
"The Office for Civil Rights case ... resonates with many in our community as it mirrors elements of their child's experiences at school and the parent's inability to effect remedies from site administration," wrote the PASS parent co-chairs.
Trish Davis, a Palo Alto parent and tax attorney, reflected the thoughts of many interviewed by the Weekly in her statement at the March 12 board meeting: "Since moving here in 2010, I have definitely learned that there are insiders and outsiders, and there are those who bully and those who are bullied. I'm an outsider and I really don't like bullies. I've followed with interest the articles ... about the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, the district's handling of the entire episode and the failure of the many responsible adults involved in this horrifying story of years-long bullying of a disabled child, another outsider to a point where the child had to be removed from school to prevent further emotional and physical harm. I've heard other parents' heartbreaking stories of bullying and the district and their frustration and pain of being told that their children were the problem. ...
"I've witnessed how those who speak up on behalf of all of these groups of outsiders, advocates who think it's unacceptable that the district fails to meet the needs of many of the children that it serves, are told to sit down and shut up because they're making the district look bad. ... Advocates for the students in this district are not making this district look bad. The leadership in this district is making the district look bad. My question is: Will you continue to serve the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil crowd by continuing to sweep the district's malfeasance under the rug, or will you finally serve the public interest by providing transparency and accountability?"
As Davis articulated, and others interviewed by the Weekly also report, those who do not fare well in the school complaint process often are the have-nots, the disempowered, the outsiders, the minorities, the limited-English speakers, or the disabled. Others have more success in navigating relationships with school officials over complaint issues, and the outsiders know it.
At the same time, many of these same "outsiders" see PTA leaders, large donors, site council members, PiE board members, the well-connected and highly resourced as having greater influence. A strong perception of advantage for some above others exists for many in the school community, as described by numerous parents and teens in Weekly interviews, although evidence of that advantage is anecdotal only and disputed by others.
Concerned "outsider" parents at times will approach a PTA leader or other influential school parent for advice on how best to approach the school, fearing it a risky move without "inside" guidance, according to accounts by both those asking and those asked. Those "in the know" can help get the best results, it is believed by some. These more knowledgeable parents also at times find themselves in the position of "great confessor," as one parent described it, as parents of children facing bullying dilemmas often need a sympathetic ear.
At times the help of an "insider" will make a difference in how the process proceeds, just as hiring a professional counselor can help (see "Advice to parents of a targeted child"). For the uninitiated, the guidance of someone familiar with both the territory and the players can build confidence, reduce fears and avoid misstep.
The PASS parent leaders also addressed this issue of advantage in their letter to the board: "It (shouldn't) appear as though being from an 'outsider' group disqualifies you from effective resolution of a bullying/harassment complaint. This is a huge part of the message conveyed in the mishandling of the OCR-investigated case and some of the actions and statements since being made public."
This is not easy work for the schools or the parents. Dealing with bullying involves complex social dynamics, abundant legal issues (jurisdiction, discipline and civil rights laws, among others) and often highly charged emotions, posing huge challenges and burdens for everyone trying to navigate their way through it. When conflict erupts between adults as they strive to resolve issues, the resulting interactions can be as difficult to untangle as the underlying bullying situation itself, adding further to the complexity and impact.
"The effects of mismanagement of a bullying/harassment complaint can make a bad situation much worse," wrote the PASS parent leaders. Many other parents and teens interviewed for this article agreed.
Tales of "nightmare" Palo Alto parents, overly aggressive and entitled, are legend, and many are quick to blame these over-the-top parents for conflicts with school officials. However, principals interviewed by the Weekly generally spoke well of parents "as partners" working through these issues with schools.
"Parents have been reasonable and never out of line," Addison Elementary School Principal Jocelyn Garcia-Thome said. This also includes parents of children alleged to have bullied.
"Ninety-eight percent of the time, parents want to see their kids held accountable when they make mistakes," Trinity Klein, the assistant principal at Gunn, told the Weekly. The legendary "nightmare" parents do exist, and certainly can make life miserable for school officials, but they do not appear to be the norm.
Unlike the "nightmare" parents, there are also many parents who suffer in silence (as do many children who do not report bullying or harassment), and based on Weekly interviews with many of them, their numbers and fears are legion. They worry that any complaint will not be taken well and possibly harm them or their child. They can't imagine what events might be set in motion once they complain, and they fear loss of control, exposure and retaliation. They're afraid to rock the boat. They don't want to be branded as troublemakers. One parent who moved to Palo Alto recently said:"I don't understand the stigma attached to making a complaint around here, but it is certainly there."
Many parents interviewed felt it was important to acknowledge, without shame, that a problem exists: Bullying does happen, and clear procedures for investigation and resolution of complaints are needed.
As it now stands, the district is working towards compliance with two resolution agreements and faces three new federal investigations. It is moving to create more leadership, training, consistency and accountability across all schools in addressing bullying and harassment issues. It is navigating new territory and trying to support its schools in the process. As Skelly has said several times since February: "We want to get it right."
In May, the district launched a new "Safe and Welcoming Schools" program and appointed a task force (with 21 members made up of 17 school employees and 4 parents) with the goal of helping "identify strategies and actions that will enhance student social-emotional programs and efforts." Included in the task force's objectives was the goal of ensuring "that all employees, students and parents understand behavior expectations ... and the processes for reporting and examining student needs and how to access assistance when they witness or are a victim of bullying.
Skelly's May 17 letter announcing this initiative said: "This summer, the task force will evaluate a wide range of resources that teach and complement lessons on character, acceptance, compassion and inclusion. It will also develop resources that will clearly outline the process for reporting bullying and the steps that the district will take to investigate these matters and then take appropriate action.
The task force held its last of three meetings on June 10 and reviewed its draft recommendations, which will be edited and posted in final form on the district's website, according to Carrillo. One of the chief recommendations is the formation this fall of a "permanent advisory committee" to monitor schools' anti-bullying and anti-harassment efforts and possibly serve as a venue for reporting incidents.
The recommendations go next to the district's "internal leadership team" consisting of district officials and the K-12 principals, Carrillo said. They will decide how best to prioritize and proceed on the recommendations. The board will be updated on progress, probably in the fall, Carrillo said.
Skelly characterized the formation of this Safe and Welcoming Schools program as part of the district's plan moving forward from lessons learned in the past months. According to a board presentation by Young on May 7, the key district take-aways from the Office for Civil Rights report include recognizing the importance of:
Having a point person at schools and at the district responsible for bullying and disability harassment, clearly identified and articulated to staff, parents and students
Documenting carefully and consistently the steps taken at each school in any situation involving bullying or disability harassment
Proactive investigations and immediate response when bullying or harassment situations arise, including taking care to talk with all witnesses (including bystanders)
Consistent ongoing progress updates and monitoring, to make sure there is follow-up with staff, that staff is all on the same page with any incident, and that there is also follow-up with all students involved, including bystander witnesses
Clarity on the definition of bullying and disability-based harassment so that everyone understands it in the same way and responds to it in a consistent manner across the schools
Refining social kindness and anti-bullying efforts, including implementation of evidence-based programs and getting consistency around that effort.
As the district, schools, parents and community move forward to grapple with these issues and take steps to make schools safer and more supportive for all, there are also those who want to remind the community to remember the disabled child and family at the center of the Office for Civil Rights report. It was their courageous decision to share their painful struggle with the public that caused these issues to come to light.
"Other people in this district get to keep their lives intact," one school leader and parent of a disabled student said. "We're talking about real children and real families, and we can't lose sight of that fact in the middle of these conversations."