It is bad enough that the Palo Alto school district has still not complied with state anti-bullying laws that took effect more than a year and a half ago.
But it is inexcusable that a year after having been found by a federal investigation to have violated the civil rights of a bullied Terman Middle School disabled student the district is holding up adopting required new policies because it wants them to be embraced by the state as a "model" for other districts.
And while district officials wrangle over whether they have received adequate "blessing" of their draft policies from federal and state agencies, Palo Alto school principals, teachers and parents are relying on old policies that are not legally compliant and that the Office for Civil Rights concluded were not being properly followed anyway.
Why is this such a herculean task for us, while other districts long ago adopted the legally required provisions in their bullying policies?
In part because Palo Alto wants to create a unique policy that even its own state school boards association strongly advises against.
The district has devised a complex policy where school principals will be forced to determine whether or not a bullying complaint relates to discrimination against a "protected" class. If it seems to the principal like the bullying is due to a child's disability, race, gender, sexual preference, national origin, religion, etc., then the complaint will be investigated and handled by the district office in accordance with clearly established and legally mandated procedures.
But if the bullying is against a kid who is small, overweight, un-athletic, has blonde hair or is just being targeted by mean friends, the complaint will be handled differently, and at the school site level, since the law imposes no requirements relating to how that type of bullying is handled except in extreme cases requiring suspension from school.
The California State School Boards Association (CSBA), whose guidance the district pays for and regularly follows when developing policies, recommends strongly against setting up this type of "bifurcated" system to "ensure certainty and consistency for students, parents and staff when addressing all bullying complaints, regardless of whether or not a bullying incident might involve discrimination," CSBA General Counsel told the Weekly. It also is safer from a legal liability standpoint, because it will be virtually impossible for principals to get it right every time.
But district consultant and attorney Dora Dome recommended against this approach because she said it was "untenable" and could lead to "hundreds of complaints a month" being handled at the district level. So Palo Alto's draft policies, developed over the course of many months by Dome, Superintendent Kevin Skelly and the school board's policy review committee (consisting of trustees Melissa Baten Caswell and Camille Townsend) include the unique two-track system.
In a bizarre twist, however, both Skelly and Caswell told the Weekly they didn't know, or couldn't recall learning, that CSBA had recommended against the very policy the committee was in the process of developing. Now they say that might cause them to rethink the policies they have spent months developing and pushing for approval from the federal and state education departments, which they have now finally received.
Perhaps the continuing confusion and persistence in seeking its own unique approach to bullying policies could have been avoided through an open and transparent process, instead of one that took place entirely behind closed doors.
As a regular standing committee established by the school board, the policy and review committee is required under the state Brown Act to be properly noticed, to have public meetings and to allow public comment. For years, none of this has happened; the committee has met regularly without posting any public notice and agenda, in violation of the Brown Act.
And since the full school board has chosen not to discuss the evolving bullying policy at any of its regular meetings, the public has had no opportunity to participate, except for a few selected individuals who were asked to provide input.
It is but another discouraging indication of how on the one hand the district repeatedly includes in its strategic plans lofty goals of transparency and openness, and then fails to provide that transparency in practice. Having already suffered the embarrassment of multiple civil rights investigations, is it too much to ask that the district, in public, discuss and adopt the policies that were required by law 18 months ago?