News

Palo Alto could seek resolution on federal civil rights cases

Two OCR cases remain pending at Paly, Gunn high schools

More than a year after the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened two separate sexual-harassment investigations at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, both cases remain pending. Rather than continue to wait for an outcome, Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee is proposing a new course of action: Work with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to seek early resolution for both cases.

McGee's recommendation to invite the OCR to the district to negotiate possible resolution agreements will come to the school board for discussion on Tuesday night.

School board member Ken Dauber — who both before and after being elected to the board has pushed the district to take a more collaborative, proactive stance on civil rights issues — requested the agenda item. Dauber noted in a blog post on the topic that under OCR procedures, a school district can request to negotiate a resolution at any time prior to the completion of an investigation — and can resolve an investigation without receiving an official letter of finding.

In April 2014, the OCR opened its investigation at Paly to look into whether the school responded properly when allegations of student sexual harassment or assault were reported. The case was opened shortly after a series of articles were published in student magazine Verde describing how up to nine student who had been sexually assaulted had then been "harassed verbally on social media after the assaults" by other students. It also coincided with the resignation of then-Paly principal Phil Winston, who at the time was under investigation by school district officials for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior involving both staff and students.

The next month, the OCR opened a new investigation at Gunn in response to a family's complaint that the school failed to "appropriately and effectively respond to notice of sexual harassment at the school."

These two investigations followed several others the OCR opened in previous years in the district around bullying and discrimination.

"Four years of what feels like investigations in perpetuity is draining our organizations' time and resources," McGee wrote in a staff report detailing his recommendation. "We have and currently are investing in and ensuring excellent, safe and healthy learning environments for students and staff. I am so impressed with and proud of what we have accomplished thus far, but if we need to do more, let's find out what that is and get it done now."

McGee has been in touch with OCR staff members intermittently since he arrived at the district in August 2014 and provided updates on this communication to the public at school board meetings. He is now asking the board to authorize him to invite OCR leadership to the district to "discuss the district's strengths and identify areas of improvement so we can ascertain precisely what they would like to see in order to have full confidence that we have been proactive in upholding and honoring students' civil rights and are aligned with OCR's mission," he wrote in the staff report.

He said he would report the federal agency's response to the board, which would then determine whether or not to instruct McGee to enter negotiations for potential resolution.

Under an OCR Case Processing Manual, resolution agreements must include: specific acts or steps the district will take to resolve compliance issues; dates for implementing each act or step; dates for submission of reports and documentation; where appropriate, language requiring submission of documents and/or other information or actions for OCR's review and approval, and timeframes for their submission; timeframes requiring the recipient to implement what OCR has approved, and language requiring documentation verifying implementation.

By signing a resolution agreement, the district would agree to "provide data and other information in a timely manner" to the OCR.

Resolution agreements also require "effective and vigorous case monitoring" and allow the Office for Civil Rights to conduct further site visits and interviews if necessary, the manual reads.

"OCR will closely monitor the recipient's implementation of the resolution agreement to ensure that the commitments made are implemented fully and effectively and that the recipient is in compliance with the statute(s) and regulation(s) at issue," the Case Processing Manual states.

Dauber wrote in his blog post that resolution agreements in sexual harassment cases "typically provide for new policies, training, and procedures that better protect students from both educator and peer harassment. The district would clearly benefit from such measures."

Palo Alto Unified has entered resolution agreements for past OCR cases, including one involving the district's mishandling of the ongoing bullying of a disabled middle school student, which ended in a December 2012 resolution in which the district agreed to rewrite its policies and procedures on bullying.

The district also entered into another resolution agreement for a case also involving disability discrimination.

McGee told the Weekly Monday that he hopes his recommendation, if approved by the board, will finally move the district forward from years of divisive contention over the OCR cases and how they were handled by the district.

It's also a new tack for a school board that in June 2014 (with two former members, before Dauber and Terry Godfrey were elected) approved a resolution criticizing the federal agency's investigative procedures.

"We have a lot of important business that has to do with teaching and learning and social-emotional health and wellness," McGee said. "The more time we spend on these old issues is more time we take away from, frankly, more important business."

"It's a matter of being proactive instead of reactive, and that's the way to do business most effectively," he added.

Tuesday's school board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Other items of business include a discussion of new counseling survey results; the district's 2015 SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) results; and proposed procedure changes for the board's policy review committee.

View the full agenda here.

Comments

27 people like this
Posted by Rajiv Bhateja
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 27, 2015 at 10:54 am

Thanks to Ken Dauber for showing leadership by suggesting a more collaborative approach with the Office of Civil Rights.

Let's never again have PAUSD in the news for allegedly having deprived anyone of their civil rights.


1 person likes this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 12:20 pm

Why are these cases taking so long? Does the OCR provide periodic status to the districts that it investigates? Can the district request an estimated end date for these investigations? Does early resolution require the district to effectively plead guilty to the focus of the investigation? Does an early resolution put the district at a disadvantage in dealing with this, and future, OCR investigations?



13 people like this
Posted by Karma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 1:18 pm

@Bob,
They take so long because people in the district do not deal with them honestly. McGee has the right idea, but he just wants them to go away. He has shown no inclination to investigate problems. He thinks because people who are damaged by people in the district office go away to lick their wounds and care for their damaged children first, that it's "old business".

(I say this as someone thinking of joining a multi-family complaint against the district and a specific employee, related to serious and illegal retaliation resulting in physical and emotional harm to children, mishandling of records, and discrimination in education. When you are new and someone tells you about serious misbehavior by an employee, you at least look into it, you do not give that employee more unmonitored discretion to hurt the same families and tell them the district will circle the wagons and use it's lawyers to "respond" if you complain.)


2 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 1:43 pm

> They take so long because people in the district
> do not deal with them honestly

And you know this, how? Much of your answer would suggest insider knowledge. Is this true?

> They take so long because people in the district
> do not deal with them honestly

Does this include the people making the complaints?


14 people like this
Posted by Karma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 2:05 pm

@Bob,
Exactly what motivation do you any parent could possibly have to make a complaint to the OCR except to fix a problem for children? To "embarrass" people in the district and incur retaliation against their children? Seriously? You do realize that there is nothing but grief that families have to put up with, but that district employees have their the monetary reasons for CYA. If the district dealt with complaints honestly, there would be no complaints to the OCR. The only reason we havent joined the one I mentioned yet is fear of immediate and further retaliation against our child.

Are you inviting me to prove the dishonesty of certain people in the district office? Because that's exactly what the complaint would prove.


6 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 27, 2015 at 2:36 pm

@Bob asks, "Does an early resolution put the district at a disadvantage in dealing with this, and future, OCR investigations?"

Well, here's what puts the district at a disadvantage: waiting to be found guilty of violating federal civil rights law. And then passing a resolution condemning the federal government for enforcing our civil rights law.

Thank you Ken Dauber and Max McGee for finally showing some common sense.

My prediction: A 4-1 vote, with Camille Townsend the last dead-ender.


10 people like this
Posted by Karma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 2:44 pm

@Common sense,
McGee isn't showing as much common sense as you give him credit for. In some ways, he's less transparent than a chastised Skelly was.


Like this comment
Posted by deja vu
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 3:33 pm

"Dauber wrote in his blog post that resolution agreements in sexual harassment cases 'typically provide for new policies...the district would clearly benefit from such measures.'"

The school board adopted new sexual harassment policies in 2014 that the 2012 OCR resolution agreement required. Both the Paly and Gunn OCR cases are about sexual harassment. Doesn't that mean that PAUSD is set on this?

Web Link
Web Link

Ditto PAUSD's sexual harassment procedures: Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by deja vu
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 5:45 pm

"Dauber noted in a blog post on the topic that under OCR procedures, a school district can request to negotiate a resolution at any time prior to the completion of an investigation — and can resolve an investigation without receiving an official letter of finding."


Can't the district wait until the investigation ends and resolve this "without receiving an official letter of finding" too?


In the link provided in the school board materials, the OCR says that "at the conclusion of its investigation" OCR:

1. May determine that "there is insufficient evidence to support a conclusion that the recipient failed to comply with the law"

or

2. May find that the district failed to comply with the law. If this, "OCR will contact the recipient and will attempt to secure the recipient’s willingness to negotiate a voluntary resolution agreement."

If the district refuses to negotiate after this happens:

"OCR will inform the recipient that it has 30 days to indicate its willingness to engage in negotiations to voluntarily resolve identified areas of noncompliance,

or

OCR will issue a LETTER OF FINDING to the parties providing a factual and legal basis for a finding of noncompliance [and then see if] the recipient continues to refuse to negotiate a resolution agreement with OCR."

Web Link




6 people like this
Posted by Move on
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 27, 2015 at 6:01 pm

[Portion removed.]

OCR is the federal government. I don't know if you folks know this but the federal government gives money to the PAUSD school district. In exchange for accepting that money, the federal government requires that PAUSD and other districts accepting the money (i.e., all of them) must apply federal civil rights law. OCR is the agency delegated by Congress to interpret and enforce that law. OCR decides what it will do. If we don't like it we have a very simple choice -- give back the money and stop accepting money from the Department.

Short of that, we need to do what they say.

Since what they say is good, and the community agrees with it [portion removed] that's good. We agree.

But even if you don't agree, a pragmatist makes a compromise and moves on and stops wasting time, money, and energy on a pointless fight with Leviathan that you cannot win.

Let's move on.


2 people like this
Posted by deja vu
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2015 at 9:34 pm

Move on,

Waiting for the process to conclude per OCR procedures and fully cooperating with the OCR then is not "wasting time, money, and energy on a pointless fight."

IMHO best for the district is to have the OCR finish its investigation and give PAUSD feedback on all that it found, not stopping mid-stream and missing something that could make our district a better place for students.






10 people like this
Posted by Karma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 8:07 am

@Move on,
OCR is part of the Department of Education. Their investigations have the sole purpose of ensuring fair and appropriate education for all children. Despite the immature and reactionary way our district office characterized and responded to them in the past, they are not a law enforcement agency, they are an education agency, though I believe they can take away that money you mentioned if a district is especially recalcitrant. They have never so much as threatened to do this.

But - correct me if I'm wrong - I don't think the district (as public school) has discretion over whether it follows U.S. civil rights laws like The Americans With Disabilities Act based on whether they receive money. (But I stand to be corrected on that - do you know for sure?) I think it's based on the fact that they are public schools, isn't it?

Plus, the Department of Education (which is how we should be referring to them) does not tell the district what they have to do. They simply require districts to write their own procedures for following the law to protect their own children. Our district has been repeatedly failing to follow its own procedures, that's what the problems come down to, and when the Department of Education tried to get them to start, our administration thought they were too good or it was too "embarrassing" to follow their own procedures to protect its weakest among us like everyone else does. So our administration spent unimaginable anounts of taxpayer money on legal fees to cover up and even go after families. They turned what is ordinarily a helpful mechanism and protection into a legal circus. All because, as we learned, our previous superintendent was "embarrassed".

The law also promises that families who complain to the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights have a right to be free of retaliation. All have a right to be free if retaliation, even those whose complaints are not taken up by the Deoartment of Education. Unfortunately, this dorsn't appear to be a whistleblower protection, it appears to be more like pre-stalker laws or sexual harrassment laws before the hostile environment understanding, where families have to go through a painful process of proving the injury to children, and even if they do, are subject to further retaliation for having complained if retaliation.

In a situation where, say, an employee would have a lot of power over a family in the educational process, the damage they can inflict on a child and family can be much like the damage of a hostile environment we know in adult sexual harrassment cases, except that we are talking about children who are even more vulnerable. There might be a few individual significant acts of discrimination, but a pervasively hostile environment - or discrimination in the child's education - can be as bad pr worse but harder to prove. Retaliation as a result of a complaint in a civil rights complaint is - again, please correct me if I'm wrong - a serious matter and may even be a crime. In that instance, OCR may end up like a law enforcement agency, something we have not yet experienced.

Just as in other crimes, the best thing employees who may have witnessed or participated in such retaliation or discimination could do is go for openness with DOE, admit it and go for a reconciliation path.

@Bob,
I write this as a parent. I am not Ken Dauber, nor did I discuss what I wrote above with Ken Dauber - yet - if that is what you are implying. There are quite a few families who have experienced retaliation in this district in my observation. No one will hold McGee responsible if he investigates and is open about it, but given everything that has happened, an inclination to cover up, especially to cover up or fail to act in the face of retaliation (perhaps even indications or allegations of retaliation) would not only be bad karma, it might constitute a crime.




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

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