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In-depth report: How a federal inquiry is changing the way schools respond to bullying

How one family's willingness to reveal their school bullying ordeal exposed the need for change in the Palo Alto school district

Editor's note: The entire in-depth package on bullying, including eight sidebars, has been posted here. A PDF version of the entire package of stories is available here.

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:

calls for independent investigations into events leading to the Office for Civil Rights report and its aftermath by the Weekly, parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto and others

• the filing of three new Office for Civil Rights complaints (two alleging disability-based bullying), currently under investigation

• 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.

"Palo Alto is not 'too special' to have a bullying problem," one parent said. (See "How often does bullying happen?" and see bar graph)

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."

Related articles:

Office for Civil Rights: Why is it there and what does it do?

Advice to parents of a targeted child

How often does bullying happen in Palo Alto?

What civil-rights investigators found at Terman

Discriminatory harassment and bullying: a definitional sticky wicket?

Family reveals details of 2012 Office of Civil Rights case alleging discriminatory harassment and retaliation

New district policies and procedures: months in the making and still not fully baked

Christina Schmidt and Mary Vincent: Volunteering to be part of the solution

Terri Lobdell is a freelance writer and is married to Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson. She can be emailed at

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Posted by nothing to see here
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 14, 2013 at 7:09 am

Interesting. With all the PPR requests, interviews and effort put in by the Weekly for this report, it has been unable to provide any new information.
There is no new news here. The board's version of the events is vindicated. So much for the need for an independent inquiry.

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Posted by Polly Graf
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 14, 2013 at 7:59 am

Agree that there's not much new here. It's a rehash of the myriad of ways our superintendent is a liar, our lawyer misstated facts, and our board is useless. PAUSD has one lumpy rug at this point.

2 people like this
Posted by Baker Coming out of Shadows
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 14, 2013 at 8:34 am

This article deserves a medal. From all of the ones that I have read, even about the OCR, I grade an A+. Way to go Palo Alto Weekly and the author who wrote this. It gives me goose pumps to read it. Catherine Baker should leave the district, but instead she is one of persons in charge of leading the meetings about Safe schools, where they just want to move forward from the OCR, when one of the reasons that meeting is happening is because of the OCR. What an irony. Deep inside of me, I am hoping that she will learn from this experience, but I think I am being unreal when I think that. Thanks for bringing Katherine Baker out of the shadows. Yes even your title is really attention caller. I can tell the writer is very skilled at this. I wish our superintendent would be as smart.

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Posted by Something to see here?
a resident of Community Center
on Jun 14, 2013 at 8:40 am

The board's version of events is vindicated? The board has been completely silent on this issue for months. It doesn't have a version of events, except "We're standing by our man." Dana Tom reminds me of all of those political wives who stand silently next to their husbands while they ride out the scandal.

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Posted by Polly Graf
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 14, 2013 at 8:46 am

@something- thanks for the laugh. I pictured Tom in full Tammy Wynette. Yup.

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Posted by Baker Coming out of Shadows
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2013 at 9:46 am

Nothing to See and Polyy Graff
I might be wrong, but you do sound like a school official. They do not see, hear or feell when a parent comes to them and complain about important issues such as the one involved in the OCR report. And even when they are in this big scandal like this one, they still do not see it. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by been there
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2013 at 10:39 am

I haven't been following this subject closely, but understand one of the "gists" is the District wanting to bury their heads in the sand. As a substitute special-needs teacher's-aid 25 years ago, I experienced something similar. The teacher I was assigned to was verbally and physically abusing her students daily. My concerns to the principal were brushed off, until I said I wanted to make an official report. Begrudgingly, the police were called. Of course, I was fired.
One police officer told me that at first everyone denied everything, but the teacher then broke down, giving a recitation of her recent marital problems as the reason she had acted out. Her contract was rescinded.
The initial official reaction was that this doesn't happen in Palo Alto, so it can't be real. But it was.

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Posted by 35 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 14, 2013 at 10:51 am

Perhaps the problem lies with "liberal,progressive." Too much PC for everyone's good. Educators aren't allowed to effectively install discipline into the process. Some kids are disrespectful and push limits on a daily basis knowing they can get away with almost anything, including bullying,cheating,racism, etc. Worst of all, their parents back them up.

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Posted by RussianMom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 14, 2013 at 11:11 am

My heart goes to EVERY child who is not feling safe at school. Not to mention the disabled kid! It is absolutely unacceptable. I feel parents pain and frustration from seing the suffering child and not being able to get much needed administrative support.
But on another note, it's not only PAUSD problem. Principal Becker is not 'coming out of shadows', but trying her best to deal and learn from the experience. My kid is seating (middle school) in a table group with a child with anger management problem. When the child is having anger outbursts, all other 3 kids are scared and don't know what to expect and how to deal with that. That's another form of 'harassment' and not all kids know how to handle it properly and who knows what will be this child's next step.
So, the more ALL OF US - students, school officials, parents, neighbors are involved, educated and work together, the safer is our environment for children. No bulling, education!

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Posted by Thank you
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 14, 2013 at 11:39 am

Fantastic investigation and summary of events to date. After all the piecemeal stories, this put everything together in one place. It will be nice to see the future writing about closure here. A+. It would be nice to hear some of the stories, good and bad that you found in this investigation.

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Posted by Principal Katherine Baker Out of Shadows
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Jun 14, 2013 at 11:58 am

[Post relocated from a duplicate thread]

I grade this article an A+. Way to go Palo Alto on Line. The district should NOT move on from the OCR investigation and findings as they want, when they are asked what are they doing about it. They have to keep it in mind in order to learn and do something serious about it. Not just pretend.

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Posted by Of Two Minds
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 14, 2013 at 12:12 pm

While I agree that PAUSD has its warts and a major one is an extreme sense of entitlement and arrogance because a bunch of smart privileged kids from Stanford keep their test results high regardless of teacher/administration quality ...

I also think there's a good bit of tail wagging the dog in the disability realm. Disabled kids get huge amount of tax dollars to support them, and well no one said life was perfect or even fair. So parents of disabled kids should ALSO be counseled on how to deal with the inevitable issues their child will face throughout life. This is not blaming the victim, this is being realistic.

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Posted by anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I thought the writer did a brilliant job of pulling it altogether. I agree with the principal, giving her an A+.

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Posted by nothing to see here
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 14, 2013 at 12:40 pm

@Baker - "I might be wrong, but you do sound like a school official."
Nope, I'm not. But you sound like a WCDBPA member.
After all the histrionics, threats and demanding an independent inquiry and, if the board doesn't do it, you'll use PPR requests and do it yourselves...
Well, the Weekly did use the PPR requests and guess what? They found nothing new. As a number of other posters have said, this is just a summary of all the other stories the Weekly has previously posted.
It must be frustrating to find out the board was being open all along. All those conspiracy theories down the drain.

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Posted by Dean
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 14, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Again, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a former resident of Midtown.

Bullying is not something new in Palo Alto. Back in the mid-60s at Wilbur I remember being singled out by a tough guy and his "friends" along Louis Road on the way home.

I was burnt on the arms with a cigarette---I suppose because I was a little "different" (introspective). Later, I whipped that guy in an intramural wresting match at lunch....

Did I report the incident? No...just toughed it out and manned up. I bear no scars physical or mental, but it made more more compassionate for those who are less fotrnatunate than me and my family and probably led me to give back to those in need.

No community, no matter how liberal or kind-hearted, is insulated against hate. Compassion has to be taught at home or through the church/synagogue. The schools, no matter how elte, can't inculcate those positive beliefs and traits.

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Posted by Seriously?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 14, 2013 at 12:50 pm


Funny how it's all in the eyes of the beholder isn't it? If you don't think these stories finally illuminate the problems needing repair, and the attitudes that led to them, then we must be reading different stories. Aren't we all searching for the same thing...a greater understanding of the forces that led these things to occur and how we might dig ourselves out?

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Posted by I have a bridge for you
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Jun 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm

"It must be frustrating to find out the board was being open all along."

This qualifies as an example of the "Tell a Whopper and Hope the Public Believes It" theory of public relations, a methodology also subscribed to by Laurie Reynolds, the lawyer who made what the Weekly called "misleading" statements to the board in February.

The board has been the opposite of open. They have held several closed meetings, and refused to make any public comment at all. They have acquiesced in Skelly's stonewalling. Their strategy is to shut up, and hope it all blows over.

But for "nothing to see here": Nicely played, sir! Go big or go home, I always say.

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Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jun 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm

I pulled my daughter out of JLS about 15 years ago because of bullying. Principal would do nothing.

That said, there are better ways to deal with this. The bullies at any school are always the minority by a large margin. Palo Alto parents running to the Feds are trying to make everything always "perfect" for their children. I like this approach much better: Web Link

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Posted by A
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 14, 2013 at 3:05 pm

1. Skelly's policy of LEAVE UP TO THE SCHOOLS, and the princpals policies of LEAVE IT UP TO THE TEACHERS is to blame here.
2. You cannot have a LEAVE IT UP TO THE SCHOOLS/TEACHERS policy when it comes to following STRICT GUIDELINES to punish bullying.

So both Skelly and Katherine Baker should go. What are they doing all day?


1. Publish strict guidelines for a) complaints, b) follow through c) finding out who is doing the bullying d) appropriate punishments.

You cannot have a violation of policy when the district doesnt even have clear policies.

AND DONT FORGET it is those same nightmare parents who have made this the one of the best school districts. Its certainly not the administrators!

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Posted by Paul
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Jun 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm

Finally someone has taken a look inside the sick body of PAUSD and seen the true nature of this diseased organism. The entitled, overly aggressive "helicopter" parents flourish at Gunn High and other schools because the principals and their staff are ambitious. Their ambitions blinds them to doing what is right for what is easy. And Skelly, should be fired for lying to the board. A sin of omission is just as deadly a lie. How does this man keep his job?

The bullying doesn't just stop with the students. PAUSD employees are also bullied by out of control parents and gutless Main Office staff. Teachers are at the mercy of ruthless and neurotic parents and their offspring. The principals, VPs, and dept heads routinely throw teachers and aides under the bus. The are slaves to their ambitions.

Bravo to the parents who reported this sickness to OCR. I understand that several teachers have also filed complaints with OCR. Bravo to all who stand fro justice & fairness.

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Posted by He is laughing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2013 at 7:13 pm

Go read Skelly and Young's Weekly Communication. They are both laughing while all this has and is happening. Skelly is so bold as to mention his evaluation in a joking sense. The joke is on you. He's won. I, too, will join in the laughter next week when he gets another year. Read the Weekly Communication, there's mention of the highly-paid PR person to combat the district's response to bullying and anyone who dares to point out its failures. Skelly, Young, Wade, Baker, do we have Grade A administrators?

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Posted by Anonyous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 14, 2013 at 8:09 pm

These are an excellent set of articles summarizing the sad state of PAUSD compliance with civil rights regulations. Bullying and disability harassment are much more common in Palo Alto Schools than the administrators or teachers admit to. It hasn't been taken seriously and the complaint system has consistently walled off the "outsiders." PAUSD needs a standard, open procedure to deal with bullying and harassment. Currently, it resembles the military's treatment of sexual assault in it's lack of procedures and discretionary actions by superiors.

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Posted by DuvMom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 14, 2013 at 10:05 pm

I love PAUSD. Great leaders and teachers. PA online is boring... How many times do we have to read the same old story? I can't help wonder why the hate. That might be a story.

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Posted by Duveneck Parent
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jun 14, 2013 at 10:15 pm

head, meet hole.

Not everyone from Duveneck is this much in denial but a lot of them are. It's too overwhelming to admit the seriousness of the problem, which probably means that Grierson has to go. Instead they deny reality and rally around the version of events that they wish was true.

I wish the victim and family well. I hope you find peace and are better treated in middle school.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 15, 2013 at 12:19 am

To Duveneck Parent,
I too hope that the family and the victim is treated better in middle school, that is if the child doe not go to Terman. I think that as long as we keep the same district and school officials, things will be the same. Now principal Katherine is famous but some people might not want to place their children in her school. I do not blame them.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 15, 2013 at 6:56 am

Very well written and balanced article. Nice to have a retrospective on this important issue with updates and links. Thank you Terri and The Weekly for your hard work and community service.

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Posted by DuvMom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 15, 2013 at 10:29 am

Great idea Duveneck Parent - get another principal. Seriously? Super classy comment directed toward me. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Grateful
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 15, 2013 at 2:58 pm

I am incredibly grateful to Terri for all of the time, care, energy and compassion she has given this topic. Her synthesis and explanations are easy to understand and yet capture an amazing amount of information.

The stories are balanced with input and data from all directions (resisting calling them sides) and yet paint a very clear picture of what is going on. She did a fabulous job of letting people's actions and statements show us the problems. She also pointed out all of the many points at which these nasty cases could have been nipped in the bud and resolved constructively.

I hope our entire community takes the time to read her work and understand the trouble we are in. Please urge all of your friends to read this.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Professorville
on Jun 16, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Excellent article, very comprehensive. Especially very useful for folks like us who recently moved to PA school district.

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Posted by DuvMom
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 16, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Welcome to Palo Alto. Overall, it is wonderful place to raise your children. Our family has been nothing but pleased with the schools. Please know, many of the people who comment here are a very small but small minority. Welcome.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jun 16, 2013 at 6:14 pm

@Duveneck Parent: Grierson's head is on the chopping block when you don't know the full story? Ridiculous. Grierson is a bit immature but is not a complete idiot. Perhaps he needs to seek advice from other well-seasoned principals before making some decisions. We worked with him on an issue and had to negotiate but he was polite. Recent principals, Larry Thomas and John Lents were worse than Grierson.

Agree with "DuvMom" that these forums are opinions of the minority, not the majority. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

We have have been happy with PAUSD staff and administration, other than Superintendent Skelly (figurehead). Although Skelly's best trait is that he has hired some outstanding principals.

Like this comment
Posted by Dad
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 16, 2013 at 7:15 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by parent of LD student
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 16, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Grierson's problem with LD students is not just immaturity. My daughter, who has learning disorders and was in an IEP in elementary school (which she "succeeded" out of) had him for math a few years ago. During the SST meeting he had to be shushed twice for chatting over other speakers about his new computer to his seatmate (who appeared to be trying to ignore him). My husband has never had to hush an adult more than once during a meeting during his long business life. When it was Grierson's turn to add helpful comments, all he had to say was that our daughter needed to put her nose to the grindstone and work harder. (She had been falling asleep, while sitting up and crying, pencil still in hand, while doing her homework late into the night.) Due to the tone of arrogance and contempt in Chris Grierson's voice and face, our family was unsurprised to learn that he was embroiled in a situation demonstrating insensitivity and, yes, arrogance, when dealing with a special ed child.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jun 16, 2013 at 10:16 pm

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

@parent of LD student: Grierson is immature, but not arrogant. He sincerely cares about children and is quite kind. Seems Grierson was correct in advising your child needed to work harder, because you state she has "succeeded out of" IEP. One of my children is LD and PAUSD administration/staff (in 3 different schools) has been completely understanding, helpful, and professional. My LD child is not so LD that he is failing - in fact, he has good grades - but yes, he has to work so much harder and longer hours than other students. It's just the way it is and we accept it instead of blaming PAUSD. We have hired tutors to help him succeed and help him study for tests which are challenging for him. Parents of LD students have to help their children more to succeed; not every child is born the same and everyone has weaknesses somewhere.

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Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Jun 17, 2013 at 1:28 am

I think of the Federal investigation as a medical lab tests performs for a patient. If the results of the lab are concerning - the Dr. may advise to go for further investigation. Usually there is no way to treat a patient without fully understanding the illness. I think that the Federal investigation sounded the alarm, laud and clear. I doubt the illness is fully understood. There were many comments about the atmosphere, transparency etc. The following is a quote of the superintendent which I copied from one of the documents that were made public after the Weekly exercised the Brown Act:
"As I often say, the community and staff take their cues from us in terms of how they relate to each other." 9/2010
I have pasted the above quote, along several others here - (Web Link)
It seems to me that the OCR have found pretty compelling samples of the cues given, and taken in terms of - how to relate to each other. I think of the Federal investigation as the first, alarming lab result. Transparency and accountability will be the first signs of change. I must be missing something.

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Posted by PAUSD Grad
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 17, 2013 at 1:57 am

Sad to see that so many of the folks commenting here seem to be missing the point. That being said, a few of you have it spot on.

Sure, most people are stirring the pot in some form or another... But more importantly, isn't the point of all this to educate young people? With a sidenote- doing it while keeping the students safe...

The focus should be on the students, rather than the political back-and-forth between the adults. Put your differences aside and do what is best for the students rather than argue about whether this spread relays any new information or simply presents old facts...

As someone who has gone through the PAUSD system, I can say there are people in the district that are far from enjoyable to work with, so I chose to limit my interactions with them. By the same token, it has been a pleasure to collaborate alongside some of the great mentors this district has to offer.

I'm not suggesting anyone change their opinion... but I urge those reading this to remember why we're all here- parents, students, staff- and think about the impact that actions have on the futures of students in PAUSD.

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Posted by outsider
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:19 am

I also award this article an A+. It's not just a rehash of already stated facts; Terri also explains the reality of Palo Alto school district culture in a way that no other writer has. She points out that there are insiders and outsiders, and that the "nightmare parents" are only small in number. And that the parents protecting their children and having issues with school staff over it are not necessarily nightmare parents. In my experience of protecting my kids from bullying, and that of other parents I know, by the way, John Lents was ineffective, unprofessional, [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff], and I am a polite, friendly and caring person. I'm so grateful he left the district. Like others who experienced him as a wonderful man, I also liked him until one of my kids was seriously bullied, and he turned on me in response to our reasonable, polite requests for help in a way that left us hurt and disillusioned. It was surreal.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:27 am

@outsider: Yes, Lents only lasted a year at Duveneck. He was way too rigid and uptight. Larry Thomas was the extreme opposite - way too relaxed (and even wore a sweatsuit at Open House).

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Posted by Jerilyn
a resident of Southgate
on Jun 17, 2013 at 12:14 pm

We are just shocked that the federal investigation did not recommend the termination of Kevin Skelly! He was far too complacent in all situations regarding bullying and harassment and is far too unsympathetic and unprofessional in general. His involvement in a prior scandal in another district should have precluded him from employment in this one....perhaps his employment history was not investigated? [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Who is responsible for hiring when filling such an important and high profile position? Whoever it was at the time, they were obviously asleep at the wheel!

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Posted by Laura Hershey
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Laura Hershey is a registered user.

This series of articles represents an incredible amount of investigation. Children with disabilities are not the only ones bullied, but they are often the most targeted. By clarifying what has happened in the past, definitions so we are on the same page as a community (and state and country), understanding the present conditions, and trying to bring us together on the same page, this reporter has done an excellent job creating a series to move us forward.

While some may focus on what could have been, and worked to vilify the victims, it is clear that what we should do at this point is figure out what leaders understand the positives and negatives in our system and how to take a step forward. Rather than pedaling backwards, and using political power to demonstrate a greater knowledge or vulnerabilities of a particular case, the repeated acts of trying to solve the situation which were not solved, whether there was intent to harm be harmed individuals, whether there has been intentional intimidation and anxiety cause by the district to victims or secretiveness around these cases - find a solution and move forward.

Every person has a flaw. Every person has strengths. It is up to us as an educational community to find strengths and every child, including children with disabilities, or gifts, or aspirations, and help them find a way to succeed.

Transparency. Accountability. Respect. Community.

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Posted by parent of LD student
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 17, 2013 at 5:22 pm

@Mom, a member of the Duveneck School community: Grierson may not have been arrogant, dismissive and rude with you but he was with my family. Because you think he sincerely cares and is kind does not make it so. You did not have our experience, which is pleasant for you. As to your other points, yes, I did get my child outside tutors, paid for outside testing, etc, etc. -- since you appear to be questioning, by implication, whether I was doing enough. It is not JUST the parents' job to educate the children. It is ALSO the school's. And if my child is falling asleep, pencil in hand, still in her chair at 10pm at night from the time she got home from school, with tears rolling down her face, she is working hard enough. Chris Grierson was the ONLY one at that meeting who didn't have one, single helpful thing to say, and it was his class that was the primary problem. I noticed he lit up when talking about the high-performers but his expression was one of contempt (complete with eyeball rolling) when our SST group talked about learning disabilities in general. This is not just insensitivity, though it is surely that. Pausd staff has been helpful, understanding etc for us in two different schools -- Ohlone and JLS. Our mileage varied at Jordan and Paly, though there have been helpful people at both -- just not Chris Grierson.

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Posted by Parent of 3
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 17, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Some of these parents with learning disabled children seem to think everyone should sympathize with their issues and give them special care. The parents demand so much of the schools. My nephew has a learning disability and his mom has taught him not to pity himself, but to work harder. If these parents think they are helping their children by constantly telling them they are subpar, they will always feel inferior. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by anon
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:28 pm

What's new in this story? It's rehash from what we've been reading in the local papers for months now. Weakly is grinding an ax and defaulting to its typical angle on this: Kevin Skelly bad, Ken Dauber good. You need an editor to tell the reporter who wrote this that she needs to find something new or it isn't "news."

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Posted by Spelling counts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 10:46 pm

I see what you did there with Weakly. Adds credibility to your rant about Skelly and Dauber, of which you are half right.

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Posted by Edmund Burke
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2013 at 11:04 pm

I think the most interesting fact in this story is this:

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."

What all this shows is that:

1. Dauber was correct that the district could have resolved this matter prior to a letter of finding;

2. Reynolds misled the board about that;

3. The board did not entirely believe her, at least enough for one board member (probably Melissa Baten Caswell) to ask Kevin Skelly to find out and report back;

4. Kevin Skelly did report back that Dauber had been correct, and Reynolds had not been correct.

5. Neither Kevin Skelly nor the board ever circled back and informed the public that they had discovered that Reynolds had misled the board and community, despite the fact that the dispute was the subject of a scathing Weekly editorial;

6. The board renewed and increased Reynolds contract by 40% after her misrepresentation over the protests of Dauber and others who were concerned about the misrepresentation;

7. The board has still not corrected the error to the public or the press. Rather the Weekly reporter Terri Lobdell doggedly pursued the documents through the Public Records Act.

8. Just to close the loop on this, that is the same Public Records Act that Skelly and Barbara Mitchell often complain about the cost of complying with.

There is much here for the board to consider given that Skelly's performance evaluation is tomorrow. Kevin Skelly should be given an evaluation of "does not meet expections" because he:

A. Concealed the fact of the Resolution Agreement and Letter of Finding from the board and the public;

B. Sat silently while his attorney misled the board and public further;

C. Most importantly, Skelly has led the district into a series of entirely avoidable conflicts and federal complaints. Part of his job is oversight of his subordinates such as Young and Wade. Another part is community relations. I can say with authority that none of the families involved in these disputes wanted to file complaints; all did so as a very very last resort, often after begging both Skelly and the board for help and informing them that they felt pressed to file complaints. Most sent emails literally begging for minor accommodations. In the case of one family, reported in the Weekly, that family heard back from Skelly that they would be helped but then Skelly went dark, stopped answering their emails, and did not provide any assistance, virtually forcing the family to go to OCR.

The fact that these conflicts were all entirely avoidable is at the heart of the problem with this Superintendent. These conflicts have brought much negative publicity to PAUSD and harmed our schools because our reputation for good management is now in tatters. This if it continues will result in damage awards (and it already has resulted in payouts of summer school tuition because of another rights violation). This is all avoidable mismanagement. '

An employee who makes so many large mistakes and then, worse, conceals them cannot possibly be said to "meet" or "exceed" expectations. He was already placed on a performance plan by Barbara Klausner last year when he agreed to stake his integrity on running things more transparently. Then we descended into this chaos of the OCR situation from which the district will not emerge for perhaps several years.

Congratulations to Lobdell for doggedly following the trail of documents and piecing together the deceptions.

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Posted by outsider
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 18, 2013 at 12:27 am

I agree with you Edmund. I think Terri did a terrific job of piecing together the deceptions. Skelly and other administrators protect(ed) ineffective principals with his site autonomy philosophy. Speaking of one of the principals he protected, why do the Palo Alto online moderators persist in protecting John Lents from negative comments, but not Grierson? Time after time I've seen such comments about Lents removed, yet similar comments about other school staff left as is. I really wish I knew why. We can get away with saying other school personnel are dismissive and rude, but not Lents, even though he was that way toward some parents too.

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Posted by Helen
a resident of another community
on Jun 18, 2013 at 3:19 pm

Google Gebser letter for bullying. This Canberra a powerful tool to get school officials to do what the law requires them to do.

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Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 16, 2013 at 10:19 pm

How disappointing to see our school board has decided to hold secret meetings to discuss the possibility of resisting the federal civil rights laws. This is a big waste of time and money. Why aren't we just cooperating? Why isn't the board telling the public what it is doing? This is absolutely infuriating. I hope the Weekly will stay on this story, and continue to report on this debacle.

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Posted by Observer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 17, 2013 at 6:30 am

Thank you PalyDad for saying what I am thinking. Where are our other elected representatives on this? We have a solid wall of Democrats who should be standing up for civil rights in this town, like Joe Simitian, Rich Gordon, Jerry Hill, Anna Eshoo. Some things are more important than back-scratching and trading endorsements.

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Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 17, 2013 at 7:10 am

I am wondering where is the new PR officer? But more than just bad PR, the idea that our tax dollars are being taken out of the classroom and given to lawyers to promote continued sexual harassment at Paly is just too much. It's nto the best way to handle an investigation. Can this be put back on track? How?

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Posted by finally starting to understand
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 17, 2013 at 8:42 am

The district hired a communications officer, not a PR person. They aren't there to spin. That where you got it wrong in the first place.

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Posted by Check, please
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 17, 2013 at 8:53 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by embarassed
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 17, 2013 at 10:37 am

The board and Skelly seem to be making a statement that they are victims of the OCR investigations, and are actually openly accusing the OCR.

( board member Mitchell and PAUSD VP Barb Mitchell falsely accuses OCR of interviewing students without parental consent Web Link)

They otherwise use denial to fend of accountability for what is and should be public management of school atmosphere (with equality for all). I imagine they use similar tactics with anyone challenging the district.

It makes PAUSD sound like a sect.

The only reason I can imagine Skelly and board have made such stupid decisions along the way is because of the elections last year, and the cat fight they have with the Daubers. These public officials took it personally and turned it into their own personal circus.

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Posted by finally starting to understand
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 17, 2013 at 10:42 am

It's the other way around. Take a look at the reaction of the supporters of those that lost the election. This thread pretty much sums it up: Web Link
Get to the bottom of that thread and you'll see that those involved in the cat fight are moving to more fertile ground after losing the election.

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Posted by embarassed
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 17, 2013 at 10:46 am

"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. "

Regarding the Mitchell accusation, it appears the interviews were not as she characterized them.

I couldn't imagine the OCR, investigating bullying, would do what Mitchell accused them of, strong arming the kids.

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Posted by embarassed
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 17, 2013 at 10:49 am


I disagree with you. I have no connection with the Daubers, and they can do anything they want. I hold the leadership of our district accountable for doing the right thing, not lying, and this mess about challenging the OCR is insane.

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Posted by finally starting to understand
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 17, 2013 at 11:08 am

What do you disagree with? Do you know what happened after the election and who contacted the family and the lawyers?
You state the "public officials took it personally" when the behavior of the opponents as indicated in the above linked thread shows the opposite to be true. If you can't win at the ballot box.........

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Posted by jls mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jul 17, 2013 at 11:20 am

jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

finally and other district defenders love to use We Can Do Better as a scapegoat every time the district staff makes any mistake. Don't look at the civil rights violations, look at Ken Dauber! Isn't he bad? And his wife? Horrible! Look over there! Don't look here at these five OCR investigations of bullying and discrimination. [Portion removed.]

What's actually interesting is that 2 years ago, the Daubers wrote an op-ed in which they suggested that Kevin Skelly might not be showing the right leadership qualities to manage the suicide crisis. They were right, of course, and they were more right than they knew, since that same lack of leadership ability has now placed us in the middle of a bullying crisis and, incredibly, a fight with federal civil rights oversight.

How did that happen if we have great leadership? The same inability to acknowledge any issues or problems with the schools that characterized the lackluster effort on suicide now characterizes our response to bullying, rape, and discrimination. "our schools are great, your critique says that they are not great, therefore you must be a bad person for saying so. You must be stopped."

All criticism, even when it is obviously correct and constructive is met with a wave of shooting the messenger in PAUSD. What actually ties these two situations together is not We Can Do Better PA but that everyone criticizing anything about the district is subjected to the same attack, the same shooting of the messenger, whether it is a parent organization, the media, or the federal government. All criticism, no matter how valid, must be stopped, and all critics silenced. Press, community leader, federal lawyers -- makes no difference. [Portion removed.]

We like to live on the edge in Palo Alto, with our zero accountability and reflexive support of the status quo. This latest school board episode of attacking the feds is bizarre and scary.

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Posted by finally starting to understand
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 17, 2013 at 11:33 am

@jls mom of 2
If you accuse "public officials took it personally" you need something to back it up. The reactions since the last election show who took it personal. At least you don't deny the behavior of your group since the last election.
If you don't want to get side-tracked and find yourself on the wrong end of your posts, stick to the point and have data to back it up.

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Posted by jls mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jul 17, 2013 at 11:42 am

jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

I think you are the person who is side-tracking this discussion. This thread is about OCR's multiple civil rights investigations of the district for unaddressed serious, pervasive disability and sex based harassment. You want to talk about Ken Dauber. You are the one who is ratholing this discussion and shooting the messenger. You are the one who is dragging this off-topic in order to deflect attention from the very real problems facing the district.

[Portion removed.]

And what if Professor Dauber made a legal referral? SO WHAT? Do we think that a disabled girl punched in the face, teased, taunted for her disability, called retarded, hazed, pushed and kicked to the point that she suffered mental health consequences doesn't deserve compensation? I'm just glad she has a lawyer because usually access to justice for families without money is very limited. I support pro bono lawyering and I am relieved that however they found a lawyer they found one.

What are you saying? Are you saying that this bullied and tormented child should NOT be fairly compensated for her injuries? Are you saying she does NOT deserve a lawyer? Are you saying that there is something wrong with this child having a lawyer? Are you saying that making a referral is an evil thing? [Portion removed.]

If someone referred this poor family to a lawyer, good for them. I hope their child gets the help she needs. If someone is willing to represent such a family without charge, he is a hero. [Portion removed.]

If PAUSD would like not to be sued it should stop violating student rights. That is the fastest way to avoid litigation.

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Posted by finally starting to understand
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Jul 17, 2013 at 11:58 am

"I think you are the person who is side-tracking this discussion."
Then why are you saying "These public officials took it personally and turned it into their own personal circus." When the opposite is patently true?

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Posted by Who's minding the store?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 17, 2013 at 12:17 pm

When I read this series when it was first published I believed as the above article states that PAUSD was on course "working towards compliance with two resolution agreements". Now we know that the board met in closed session with a plan to discuss the issues raised by Barb Mitchell's email that questioned OCR's authority to conduct investigations and enter into agreements with school districts to assure compliance with civil rights legislation.
Board members are supposed to represent the public and their first concern should be ensuring a safe school environment for all. So far only two board members,Caswell and Emberling, have been willing to go on record in support of working with OCR to improve our systems and policies to protect our student's civil rights. I don't understand why board members would oppose this work.

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Posted by embarassed
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 17, 2013 at 7:43 pm

finally starting to understand,

Your moniker indicated that you agree there is political fighting going on,except instead of the board and Skelly reacting to issues because of the election, and the tension with the Daubers, you say "it's the other way around."

I can't "back up" my incredulity about why on earth the board and Skelly would be challenging the OCR, or why they are acting like victims. That was my whole point - the only reason I can imagine is that it was politically motivated during the elections last year (the hiding), and that it's now plain messy, or personal.

Can you back up the "the other way around"?

Are you saying the Daubers caused the OCR investigation? Can you provide a timeline instead of these long threads to catch some random comment?

If Skelly was hiding the first OCR investigation, how could the Daubers cause it?

As for the investigation based on the Verde rape articles, the Daubers did the district a favor advising them of the obvious.

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Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Jan 15, 2014 at 9:59 pm

The title of this thread - In-depth report: How a federal inquiry is changing the way schools respond to bullying.
Published - 6/14/13 (more than a year ago).

I commented, above, on June 17, 2013. I ended my posting stating- "...Transparency and accountability will be the first signs of change. I must be missing something."

I am sorry. I did not understand.

My questions - How a federal inquiry is changing the way schools respond to bullying? What have changed?

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