The family of a Palo Alto special education student who was previously the focus of an Office for Civil Rights investigation and finding of civil-rights violations against the Palo Alto Unified School District filed a claim for damages against the district on June 21, a legal step required before filing a lawsuit, the Weekly has learned.
The claim alleges a pattern of peer bullying and harassment of the student and the failure of the school and district to protect the student, starting in 2008-09 when the student was in elementary school, according to the claim, a copy of which was provided to the Weekly by the family (redactions have been made to protect the student's identity).
The claim states that it arises out of the district's "knowing, intentional, deliberate, and negligent failure to provide (the student) with access to critical special education programs to which (the student) is entitled by State and Federal law and to intervene promptly and effectively to stop unlawful disability-based harassment of which the district had notice and actual knowledge."
School board President Dana Tom and Vice President Barb Mitchell both declined comment, and Superintendent Kevin Skelly was leaving on vacation and unavailable for comment.
The claim refers to "PAUSD's repeated failures to ensure (the student's) safety and well-being." It alleges "continuous, pervasive and extreme physical and emotional abuse, discrimination, harassment, violence, intimidation, and bullying" and injuries including "significant deterioration in (the student's) mental and physical health, pain and suffering, loss of society with family, denial of access to a public education, and denial of critical special education programs."
As a result of these injuries, the student "will need continuing care and services and seeks punitive and compensatory damages," according to the claim. A damage amount is not specified but is alleged to exceed $10,000, the maximum range permitted to be stated on the claim form.
The school district has 45 days, or until Aug. 5, to either deny the claim or attempt to settle it, according to William Abrams, lawyer for the family and a senior partner in the international corporate law firm of King & Spalding. The district has not yet responded to the claim, Abrams told the Weekly. After 45 days, the law permits the claim to proceed to a court lawsuit; if a lawsuit is filed, it will be in federal court, Abrams said.
Abrams told the Weekly that he and his firm are representing the family in this matter "pro bono" (without charging fees for lawyers' time). The firm is also advancing costs.
"This case involves very serious issues for the student and our school district. We took the case pro bono because the student's family doesn't have the financial resources to hire counsel to protect the student's rights and obtain the relief to which the student is entitled," Abrams said.
According to the King & Spalding website, Abrams "has handled a number of high-profile pro bono matters through the U.S. and California Supreme Courts" involving education, rights of children and youth, foster care and children's welfare. Abrams also is a Palo Alto resident and Stanford University consulting professor teaching "Children, Youth and the Law" and working on disability law cases with the Stanford Youth and Education Law Clinic. He is also a faculty adviser to the Stanford Students with Disabilities.
King & Spalding's local corporate clientele include Google and HP, according to its website; the firm employs about 800 lawyers in 17 offices around the world.
The student's experiences at Terman Middle School during 2010-11 were the focus of a recent Office for Civil Rights investigation, in which the Office for Civil Rights found that the school and district administrators had failed to take timely, effective steps to stop the bullying. The federal agency also found that school officials did not have good procedures and systems for addressing complaints, did not understand federal discrimination laws, did not conduct a thorough or impartial investigation of reported bullying incidents and did not take disciplinary action towards students who engaged in harassment.
The district, which tried to keep the public from learning about the investigations' findings and the resulting settlement agreement (signed in December 2012), is in the process of carrying out trainings and developing improved policies and procedures under the direction of the Office for Civil Rights.
This claim covers events that go beyond the Terman school year investigated by the federal agency and also includes events at a Palo Alto elementary school (which the student attended prior to Terman) and at a Palo Alto middle school attended after Terman. During this period of several years, the claim alleges that the student was bullied, harassed and emotionally abused by other students, subjecting the student to a "hostile environment based on (the student's) disability and as a result of PAUSD's negligence and reckless breach of its duties (to the student)."
The claim also references difficulties the family encountered in bringing these issues to the attention of the schools and district, citing the "disregard of PAUSD for the efforts of (the student's) parent to notify PAUSD of (the student's) need for protection and entitlement to services and care, causing and exacerbating (the student's) injuries and damages." The claim also charges the district with "failing to meaningfully engage with (the student's) parent and family."
The claim also contains an enumerated list of additional district failures, including failing to "create and implement proper procedures expected and required of a district to provide meaningful ability for (the student) to obtain relief and address (student's) needs," "conduct any thorough and impartial investigations of incidents reported," and "take disciplinary action on students who engaged in harassment, intimidation, and bullying of (the student) or violence against (the student)."
The claim specifically names district Superintendent Kevin Skelly, Associate Superintendent Charles Young, Director of Special Education Holly Wade and others whose names were redacted as knowing, or having reason to know, that the student was "suffering injuries and damages as a result of bullying, harassment, and physical and emotional abuse."
According to Abrams, the claim seeks damages and other relief to address the student's ongoing need for care, including appropriate placements and financial support for continuing remedial medical and educational services. The student is currently placed in a residential facility at district's expense, according to the family. The student has been there since February as part of the student's Individual Educational Program.
Any resolution of the case needs to account for the continuing damages the student is suffering, including after the student "ages out" of the public educational system at age 18, Abrams told the Weekly.