District struggles to develop policy for handling bullying

Palo Alto parents say district needs to spell out processes, timeline for resolving investigations of complaints

Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he will rewrite a proposed school district policy on bullying after his latest version was criticized Wednesday by parents as well as members of the Board of Education's Policy Review Committee.

Committee chair Camille Townsend suggested that the full board take up the bullying policy issue because, she said, its substance is "bigger than" the two members of the board subcommittee.

Though the school board approved new policies in February aimed at protecting minority and disabled students from bullying and harassment, members said they also want a separate policy that clarifies procedures for the families of so-called "non-protected-class" students who have been bullied.

But the draft offered up Wednesday satisfied neither the board committee nor the dozen parents who sat through the meeting.

Committee member Heidi Emberling said the draft resembled "the kitchen sink" in its attempt to be comprehensive, combining policies on student conduct, bullying prevention and bullying intervention, including complaint procedures.

"I want to make sure we have what needs to be in here but also have clear guidelines and policies for stakeholders and students," Emberling said.

Townsend said she appreciated an apparent effort by drafters to avoid creating paper trails on minor playground squabbles but added that the draft lacked clear guidelines for victims and perpetrators in alleged bullying situations.

Eight parents in the audience who spoke expressed strong dissatisfaction with the proposal, saying it lacked timelines as well as clarity for parents about what their recourse is if they feel their child has been victimized.

Oakland lawyer Dora Dome, who has consulted with the district on drafting policies on discrimination, harassment and bullying, repeatedly noted that the district is not required to have any policy at all on bullying of non-protected-class students. Neither federal nor state law requires any procedures for handling complaints made by non-protected-class victims of bullying.

Dome said she personally does not advocate creating new rights (for parents and students) in district policies that do not exist in the law but said the district may want to do so in this case.

"What are you trying to achieve with this policy?" Dome repeatedly asked. "Do you want to do it for one particular kind of behavior versus any potential claim where there is a victim? It has to be a conscious decision because it's not required statutorily."

Emberling responded that bullying needed special attention in a board policy.

"We as a country are taking bullying more seriously. ... Research has shown the effects of bullying are severe, and that is what made bullying rise to this level of seriousness, and I think the conversations and the interactions and the struggle we are having around this are mirrored throughout the country."

Brenda Carrillo, the school district's student-services coordinator who has overseen the drafting of the latest version of the policy, said the draft was the result of wide community input and an effort to make all children feel included, welcome and safe at school, as well as to provide guidance to parents.

But parents in the audience complained that the draft lacked sufficient guidelines.

"The procedure (in the draft) is almost entirely illusory," Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber said.

"There are no timelines," she said. "We need some kind of procedure, some kind of deadline, some kind of sense of what's going to happen. That has been promised and promised and promised over and over again to the community. It doesn't make sense to me for you to take two years struggling with this and come out of it without a deadline, or a due date, or a timeline."

The draft policy discussed Wednesday outlines a school-level investigation procedure for all bullying complaints that are not based on legally protected characteristics (race, sex, disability, etc.) and requires a separate district-level process known as the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) for all complaints protected under anti-discrimination laws.

In many respects, it resembles the two-tiered system described in a December 2013 draft bullying policy (scrapped by Skelly in January) but with important exceptions. Most notably, the current proposed procedure for resolving complaints at the school level has no timelines for resolution, no requirement for a written decision and no appeals process. (See this table.)

The new draft policy still directs non-protected-class complaints to be investigated by school personnel "promptly" and "thoroughly" and to follow standard protocols for interviewing (for example, no interviews together of alleged perpetrator and victim). But no timeline for completing the investigation is required.

By contrast, the December draft policy's school-level procedure required resolution of bullying complaints involving non-protected-class students within 15 school days, a written decision (documenting the issues raised, the findings and rationale for the decision and the corrective action, if any), and a right of appeal to the district's student-services coordinator.

The December draft also contained greater documentation requirements regarding bullying complaints, reports and resolutions.

Under the Uniform Complaint process for discrimination-based complaints, the time limit for resolution is 60 days, although the parties may agree to try first reaching informal school-level resolution within a 10-day time limit; if no resolution is reached within 10 days, the district Compliance Officer (Associate Superintendent Charles Young) is directed to start the district-level Uniform Complaint Procedure investigation and reach resolution within a maximum of 60 days from the date of the complaint.

Appropriate interim measures to protect the victim from further bullying or harassment while an investigation is pending is required under both the Uniform Complaint Procedure and the new proposed school-level procedure, although the Uniform Complaint Procedure provides more detailed requirements.

The December draft bullying policy was set aside by Skelly for re-tooling after "discussion with principals, district staff and others," according to a Dec. 20 memo from Skelly to the board that reversed an earlier Skelly recommendation for adoption of the December policy.

Principals balked at the December draft because "they felt overwhelmed with the bureaucratic process piece" which requires a reporting form, an investigation form and a form to get back to parents, Carrillo said Wednesday.

Those forms, however, were developed independently last summer by a school district committee and introduced to principals during the fall as part of the district's strengthened bullying response procedures, according to school board member Barbara Mitchell in comments to the Daily Post last November. The forms were also touted by Skelly last fall as providing valuable guidance to the school personnel.

In response to concerns from the schools about the burdensome nature of the four forms, district staff reduced the number from four to one. Neither the December draft nor the current draft requires the use of reporting forms. District staff have offered them to schools as a tool that could be helpful, independent of board policy requirements.

Regarding timelines, Skelly said Wednesday, one reason the latest draft lacked them was because "people start stretching to the end (of the time limit), and I don't want to stretch to the end -- we want our administrators to be responsive to these things."

But Skelly indicated he was open to timelines, expressing agreement with parent and Special Education Advisory Committee chairperson Christina Schmidt, who had called for more clarity in the process for parents as well as specific timelines.

"A timeline is good; Christina, your suggestions are good," he said, adding that it's inevitable that all parties will not be satisfied with the resolution of disputes.

Townsend said she would be willing to consider timelines but reiterated her concern that "normal interactions that kids have at school" not be unduly formalized and escalated, with paper trails.

Parent Andrea Wolf drew applause from the audience of about 13 parents when she called for a consistent anti-bullying curriculum across the district's 12 elementary schools.

"It's terrible that at the district we don't have every site doing the same (anti-bullying) program when we all feed into three middle schools and two high schools," Wolf said. "The idea that we're allowing 12 or 13 elementary schools to teach all these different programs and when the kids get to middle school they don't have the same language, that's appalling to me."

But Skelly defended the multiple curricula, saying the district has attempted "to capture the consistency issue" with input from parents and through language in the policy that promotes "a wide range of year-long programs for positive school culture, focused on pro-active practices and intervention strategies to build resilience ... embedded into the curriculum."

Emberling questioned the definition of bullying contained in the latest draft, saying she would like to include the definition used in the bullying-prevention field: repeated hurtful acts involving an imbalance of power.

Emberling said the community is looking for clear bullying policies and procedures that engender trust.

"Our community needs to trust that there's a process, and that's why were pushing to have a timeline and guidelines," she said.

"The community is asking for guidance -- not only our parents community but also teachers and administrators want guidance from us," she said. "I realize that we have very strong sites in our schools, and that's great for innovation, but they're looking for guidance in terms of a bullying policy. We as a board need to give it to them."

Emberling indicated she was open to the idea of using the UCP for all bullying complaints (protected and non-protected), as recommended by the California School Boards Association. This possible approach was previously discussed and recommended by Skelly and board member Melissa Caswell at the December BPRC meeting, but shortly afterwards reversed in favor of continuing instead with the policy's separate school-level procedure for non-protected bullying complaints.

"If we're talking about bullying in terms of the larger issue that bullying causes emotional damage, then to me it doesn't matter if it's a protected class or not. If it rises to that level, we want to have a process for that level. So why re-invent the wheel? ... If it rises to the level of bullying, I'm just not sure ... why we would want two separate processes," Emberling said.

She also proposed the idea of a board "Conduct Policy" to handle the more "garden-variety" student misbehavior that did not rise to the level of the more harmful bullying situations in order to clearly separate out other types of misconduct from the more seriously damaging bullying behavior.

Skelly agreed with Emberling that trust is an issue but stressed that it must be mutual.

"We're not going to be able to build any policy if we don't trust the people who are (implementing the policy). You can't legislate a policy if you don't have confidence in people to do that work, so that's a challenge."

Skelly said he would draft a new policy, publicize it, set a deadline for people to provide feedback and return to the committee.

"I'm still committed to getting something," he said. "What we had here, while imperfect, would have been helpful to our district. Can it be improved? Yes. I'd like to take that shot."

Townsend said there may be a need for the full board to meet on the topic.

"I think there's enough there that the board as a whole might want to consider because I think it's bigger than the two of us," she said to Emberling.

See a comparison of the district's current proposed bullying policy and the December draft policy.


Like this comment
Posted by more poor reporting
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 13, 2014 at 1:08 pm

"But parents in the audience complained that the draft lacked sufficient guidelines.
"The procedure (in the draft) is almost entirely illusory," Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber said.""

Describing Michele as a "Parent", while literally correct, is misleading. Michele is not talking as a parent of children attending schools in this district as none of her children attend schools in this district. "Resident" would have been a more appropriate description in this case.

Like this comment
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2014 at 1:27 pm

I'm not sure why this matters but for the record, my children have attended Nixon, Terman, JLS, Barron Park, and Gunn. My youngest child currently attends a private middle school. He may or may not attend a PAUSD high school -- that is not currently decided.

Let's start by all agreeing that there are a lot of people involved in the schools who don't currently have kids in the schools including members of the PTAC board, the PSN steering committee, and members of the school board. Let's next agree that some people without kids currently in the schools might be in the best position to work on some of these issues because they have a longer-range perspective, and because they don't fear retaliation against their children.

I have noticed that some people have tried for a long time to delegitimate my views because of this fact. I have actually heard all kinds of things in this vein, including Dr. Skelly's interesting comment that our kids who attended Gunn were not "typical Gunn kids" presumably because one had an IEP and another didn't like all the homework. I did not ask him what he meant by that, but I'm sure I am about to find out.

We all mean well and we all have our own views on what would be a good bullying policy. We may disagree about what the specifics of that policy should be, but that does not mean that we are disqualified from offering our views. I think a focus on the substance of my comment, which is that there should be a timeline, a written decision, and an appeal to the district would be a great conversation.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 13, 2014 at 2:03 pm

What do other school districts do? Surely, ours can't be the only district with this issue, and we needn't necessarily reinvent or create something entirely new, when there must be some successful examples available! has policy recommendations (notably, including cyber-bullying, which seems pertinent, considering recent cases) as well as a US Dept. of Education's nation-wide survey of 11 key components, and the CA Dept. of Ed. also has a sample policy (Web Link). Timelines are not specified (since these are guidelines) but community discussions on what is "reasonable" are encouraged.

"Repeated" comments against "legal requirements" for "non-protected classes" by the lawyer seem adversarial. Developing a good policy would help everyone--not only the kids, who should be first priority, but also the school district.

Like this comment
Posted by more poor reporting
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 13, 2014 at 2:22 pm

The article implied it was parents of children in the district that were critical of the proposal. You've confirmed my comment that you aren't a parent of a child in the district.

I said nothing about your views, my comment was about the report.

It should have stated "residents" and not "parents". The article is sloppy and there is no excuse for such poor reporting.

Like this comment
Posted by Duveneck parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 13, 2014 at 3:33 pm

Thank goodness that Heidi Emberling is now on the BPRC. Heidi is an expert in the field of bullying; her contribution will be very valuable. At the meeting yesterday, it was clear that Dora Dome was approaching the policy from the viewpoint of only addressing bullying as defined in the Ed code; she stated as much. The Ed code only defines bullying as the most egregious behavior with the remedies of suspension and expulsion.

I am very hopeful that the next policy we see will be more in line with the community's values.

Like this comment
Posted by Addison parent
a resident of Addison School
on Mar 13, 2014 at 3:34 pm

This is a very interesting article, thank you. I hope that Ms. Emberling stays involved in this issue. She sounds very sensible. Thanks also to the parents who have taken their time to track this policy and to try to make it better for all the children of the district.

Like this comment
Posted by School parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 13, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Editor: This story probably should be listed in Town Square under "School and Kids" not "Around Town." Thanks for looking into it.

Like this comment
Posted by Lame duck
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 13, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Skelly is pretty much a lame duck superintendent at this point-- a powerless figurehead. He should. to be allowed to write or say much of anything for the remainder of his time here.

Like this comment
Posted by Educator
a resident of Woodside
on Mar 13, 2014 at 8:21 pm

Educator is a registered user.

Why is the Superintendent writing policy?

The CSBA (California School Boards Association) provides appropriate versions of policies, which can be tailored specifically for each District. They also provide full review of existing Board Policies to ensure they are Ed code compliant and appropriate. Let the trained professionals write polices.

Like this comment
Posted by Edmund Burke
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2014 at 9:50 pm

The reason that the district is not using the CSBA model bullying policy is that the CSBA strongly recommends that districts use their Uniform Complaint Procedures to resolve complaints of bullying regardless of whether or not they involve bullying based on a 'protected class' like race, gender, sexual harassment, or disability:

"Though some bullying incidents may not fall within the provisions of Education Code 234.1, CSBA strongly recommends that districts use their uniform complaint procedures when investigating all bullying incidents to ensure consistent implementation by district staff."

Here is a link to the CSBA model bullying policy: Web Link

PAUSD does not want to do this. PAUSD wants to have its own unique policy that maintains site-based handling of bullying without any procedure or accountability.

The other reason that PAUSD seems to want its own unique policy is that it wants to define bullying in an incredibly narrow manner. Instead of defining bullying consistent with educational and social science research, PAUSD wants to define it based on the Ed Code defintion of extreme bullying that can justify suspension and expulsion.

This means something that people do not yet fully understand. It means that nothing will be covered by the district's policy unless it is so violent or otherwise extreme that it would justify a suspension or an expulsion. It must be causing serious damage to a child before it would even be covered. Even after that, parents of a child who has been thus damaged would have no procedural rights at all. No timeline, no appeal from a principal's action or inaction.

Here are some questions:

1. Why is the district deviating from CSBA's "strong recommendation" to use the UCP for all bullying?
2. Why is the district allowing Dora Dome, whom PAUSD hired as a consultant to do disability harassment trainings for staff to play such an outsized role in policy formulation? It is surprising to anyone with any legal training to see her so strongly advocating for her opinion that PAUSD should not have a bullying policy that provides even a modicum of rights to parents and students who have been bullied when CSBA (a school-board trade association, with a general counsel) strongly recommends the direct opposite view.

Why should PAUSD listen to Dora Dome rather than CSBA?

Like this comment
Posted by Skung
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2014 at 7:24 am

Save the praise that two of you are posting for board member Heidi Emberling. The assertion that she is an expert on bullying would be laughable if this latest revelation of district dysfunction wasn't so serious. Heidi has had over a full year to demonstrate any competence as a board member and I would assert her performance has been a cringe-worthy failure. I more than welcome opposing viewpoints in this matter. As for the other expert, Dora Dome, she is indeed an expert. I know this because she has self-promoted this label without actually having to say it, you know, lawyer-style. And lawyers are what Heidi, the board, and superintendent Kevin Skelly have spent the last six years buying and spending their time with. Every educator knows that the focus must always be on children, but the folks at 25 Churchill have appeared to not do that. And now Kevin Skelly is going to attempt to save the day by writing a policy after years of whining that this is hard work or that he is sorry that he messed up and that he wants to get better [portion removed.] Mr. Skelly, you have hired dozens of administrative folks in six years and what has happened is that a bunch left, some fled, and the ones you have are the ones who are supposed to have handled this latest mess, but really all messes. Skelly and all his friends at Leadership Associates (this is a fact, Weekly, confirm it by asking him) know that the superintendent leads and directs. Sure, it's a good symbolic show he is putting on in these last three months, but copying and pasting an existing CSBA policy or the UCP is supposed to be done by Brenda Carrillo, and if she fails at it, it gets kicked up to the assistant superintendent, Charles Young. As always, I await Skelly's reply from his Weekly Communication, which he did not complete last Friday.

Like this comment
Posted by Self dealing?
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 14, 2014 at 7:53 am

Skelly is going to be working for Leadership Associates as a superintendent headhunter after he leaves PAUSD.

Like this comment
Posted by protect whom
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 14, 2014 at 10:53 am

reading this story and posts for months has led me to the conclusion that the district wants to protect the bully and only the bully. meaning they want to make sure there are no written reports or files or actions that could be traced to a specific student who is repeatedly bullying others. so perhaps the district can be said to protecting at least one (and seemingly only one) class of student.....the bully. I am confused as to why they would chose this route but it is pretty clear this is the group of kids they want to protect.

Like this comment
Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2014 at 10:55 am

Bullying is bullying regardless of the district, town or state it takes place in. Why should the CSBA model be tailored specifically to PAUSD? This district's reluctance adopt the CSBA policy is a result of the district's refusal to be accountable to bullying or to do much of anything about it. We are special, our little darlings don't really bully other students.

Like this comment
Posted by Powertrip Observer
a resident of Addison School
on Mar 14, 2014 at 12:13 pm

What I loved most about the meeting was having Camille stand up and stomp her foot in fury that she wasn't in control of the meeting. She pulled an Al Haig "I am in charge" tantrum and told Skelly off for trying to respond to a parent question. If that isn't bullying, I don't know what is!

Even more hilarious was her trying to assert that her behavior was an example of how everyone should be treating each other as we counter bullying.

Better than reality TV

Like this comment
Posted by bobgnote
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm

bobgnote is a registered user.

[Portion removed.]

Bullying is going to happen, folks. Since our US Constitution was written, by slave-owners, for the exploitation, of virtual slaves, by bureaucrats, which are virtual slave-owners, and the religious-media-affected have failed, to sufficiently cross-breed, corruption and stupidity have married, many times, since ratification, of the flawed Madison-Mason media, 225 years ago.

[Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Ellen C.
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 14, 2014 at 12:39 pm

I found it curious that the proposed process had 4 forms that were perceived as burdensome to fill out. My guess is that much of the information on the 4 proposed forms was the same and with a small does of some of our silicon valley technology, a web based program could be written that would duplicate the duplicate information into all the forms, leaving only the fields that are unique to a particular form to be completed.

Perhaps our administrators are overburdened with paperwork and alternatives should be investigated to help them comply with a process that both lightens the administrative load while ensuring a proper paper trail and accountability to protect our students from bullying. Simply eliminating the forms without considering how to keep them but make it easier to fill them out doesn't seem like the right path (apologies if that was considered - the article didn't say).

Like this comment
Posted by Roger
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 14, 2014 at 2:11 pm

[Post removed due to deletion of referenced comment.]

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 15, 2014 at 6:47 pm

@ Ellen C

Here is a link to the four "bullying" forms that were provided to the principals last fall: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Forward
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 15, 2014 at 7:02 pm

Thanks to the Weekly for an informative story. It's too bad that we can't watch a recording, it sounds like it was a very interesting meeting.
Heidi appears to be stepping forward with a balanced perspective on this issue. The public will need to let the rest of the board know that that they support her position if she is to have success on the final policy.
I am sorry to hear how Skelly was treated by Camille. I have not always agreed with him, but he is still the superintendent and should be treated accordingly by the committee chair.

Like this comment
Posted by Skung
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Camille is not mistreating Skelly. Despite warnings for years,she has rewarded him with pay raise after pay raise. This little bit of theater means nothing, perhaps less than Barbara Klausner's 2012 faux-outrage that preceded a pay raise and contract extension. And the latest public relations praise for Heidi Emberling? Kind of weird because just because she is no expert on bullying and her membership on the board has been a mistake.

Like this comment
Posted by Camille not a good model
a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Camille just gave us an example of how bullying takes place at school and workplace. She was very rude to Skelly, who actually deserves to be treated like that, but not in public. If I was Skelly I would eel very embarrased. For the first time he was to respond to a parent, and Camille told her I am in control, shut up. Hmm! I am wonder why our kids behave like that. By the way she also treated other parents at the same meeting like dirt, except that the parents were nog getting paid almost $300,000 per yera. I guess with a pay like that, I will shout my mouth too. May be there is nothing wrong with Dr. Skelly, but with our board members who wanto to be on control. Time to get new board members too.

Like this comment
Posted by Hurricane Camille
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 16, 2014 at 8:40 am

I would like to see a video of this meeting. I heard from one of the parents who was there that Camille was inappropriate to the Superintendent to the point where several people afterwards said they felt like bystanders. Ironically, similar to the feeling after Barb Mitchell shut down the middle school girl at the board meeting a month ago. Skelly sat through that episode without interrupting. Maybe objecting would have been a better idea.

I guess a decade on the board is causing some of our neighbors to have delusions of royalty.

Like this comment
Posted by Dorky
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Mar 16, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Kevin Skelly should just keep,his hands off of anything and everything and keep his mouth shut for the remainder of his term here. Do not let him cause anymore trouble. His legacy is rotten enough without it.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 7 comments | 3,031 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,086 views

Couples: So You Married Mom or Dad . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 1,023 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 701 views