The Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday unanimously approved a resolution challenging the investigative practices of a federal civil rights agency that has launched multiple probes of the school district.
Board members said their attempts to work cooperatively with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights had been met with indifference to the district's concerns about possible evidence-tampering, unfair demoralization of teachers, misleading media reports and disregard for student privacy.
The resolution opens the way for the board to contact elected officials and other groups to lobby for reform of OCR procedures, they said.
The board's vote came after pleas by six community members to reject the resolution.
"It's ironic that we wouldn't be in this situation if adults had better served children instead of trying to protect themselves," said parent LaToya Baldwin Clark, referring to the multiple OCR investigations into alleged violations of students' civil rights.
"I understand that being superintendent is sometimes a thankless and very difficult job but I do hope it's a job that should be focused on children and not on protecting adults as I believe this resolution does," Clark said.
Parent Christina Schmidt said she understood the district's frustration about the OCR's alleged "misrepresentations, omissions, unexcused delays, misquotes and not following its own procedures." Ironically, she added, many families experience similar frustrations when they approach the school district with concerns about treatment of their children.
"Now I'd hope you can understand how families who come forward and have a complaint may be feeling," Schmidt said, also urging the board to reject the resolution.
Despite their complaints about OCR practices, board members stressed that they fully support and share the mission of the agency to guard civil rights of all students.
"When the mission is so complementary, it seems reasonable that the working relationship should be more collaborative and constructive," board President Barb Mitchell said.
Yet Mitchell said the agency had ignored a district request to review an email OCR lawyers had once shown district lawyers that did not match the district's stored copies of the same email correspondence of the same dates.
"No one in our community is in favor of falsely implicating teachers and principals of discrimination against students, tolerating evidence tampering or disregarding student privacy protections," Mitchell said. "Unfortunately, in misrepresenting some district staff actions over the past two years, OCR's important mission has been undermined rather than facilitated, and diligent district educators have been demoralized rather than inspired.
"We hope that the resolution may help to raise awareness and encourage changes in OCR practices," Mitchell said.
Under questioning from board member Dana Tom, a school district lawyer suggested the federal agency may already be responding.
Within days of the board's first discussion of the proposed resolution June 3, lawyer Chad Graff said he heard from an OCR lawyer after a long silence, promising that the district's appeals "were going to be reviewed."
"She acknowledged the legal timeline had required a response in September 2013 but that we should expect a response within 45 days," Graff said. "I think that was a positive sign -- it was the first communication we'd had in over 60 days on this issue."
Over the past two years the OCR has conducted at least seven investigations into the Palo Alto school district. Two of those remain open. Four have recently been dropped for insufficient evidence. In an open case involving Terman Middle School, conditions of a voluntary "resolution agreement" signed by the district and the federal agency are expected to be completed in the next school year.
Background material on the district's resolution and dealings with OCR