Editor's note: Throughout this article, the Weekly relied on documents provided by the student's family for some details, which the district could not comment on due to students' privacy. The Weekly is using the pseudonym Maria Garcia to protect the family's privacy.
On the afternoon of April 18, Maria Garcia* arrived at Jordan Middle School in Palo Alto to pick up her son, a sixth grader -- a typical day, she thought. But, to her shock, she arrived to find him being questioned by Palo Alto police after another Jordan student had threatened him with a knife. The school had not notified her about the incident, she said in an interview with the Weekly.
The male student had taken a knife out of another student's backpack, approached Garcia's son and waved it in such a way that three other students pulled him away "as a protective action to what they perceived as a threat to (his) safety," Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey later wrote in a letter that concluded the incident rose to the level of bullying and intimidation.
Garcia's son, whom the Weekly is not naming to protect his privacy, is a special-education student from a Spanish-speaking Palo Alto family. The incident with the knife was not the first time he had been bullied at Jordan but rather was the most egregious in a series of incidents his parents reported to school administrators and eventually, in increasing frustration about a lack of action, to the district office.
This family's case illustrates how the Palo Alto school district -- despite adopting new bullying policies and procedures in 2014 and instituting extensive staff trainings in the wake of a U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights' investigation -- is still struggling to find and uphold clear lines when it comes to addressing bullying complaints. The federal agency's investigation had determined that the district failed to properly respond to the ongoing bullying of a Terman Middle School student with disabilities.
Now as then, according to the Garcias, the district's failure in their case allegedly led to unending bullying at Jordan for months, disruption to their son's education and emotional well-being and ultimately, the family's recent decision to pull their son out of Palo Alto Unified altogether for his safety.
The Garcias' case is one of 26 investigations the district has opened in the last year in response to allegations of discrimination, bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct under its Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP). Three cases have been opened during this current school year.
Of the 19 cases that have been resolved to date, according to the district's UCP log, nine resulted in either taken or "warranted" corrective action, such as professional training; in five, the district determined that corrective action was not necessary; and in five more, the district found no discrimination but offered resources to the student and parent or reached a resolution with the parties.
The Uniform Complaint Procedure was revised in 2014 at the direction of the Office for Civil Rights to bring the district into compliance with federal and state law so that all allegations of unlawful discrimination, based on legally protected classes , would be handled at the district level. A long debate ensued over whether non-discriminatory bullying (such as bullying a child for being overweight) should also be handled by the district or continue to be addressed at individual school sites.
The district ultimately adopted a two-tiered system. All complaints that do not involve legally protected classes are to be handled at the schools. Complaints that do allege bullying based on a protected status, such as the Garcias', would automatically trigger a district-level UCP investigation.
As the district was developing this new policy, community members expressed concern that a dual system created potential for confusion and inconsistency. The California School Board Association (CSBA) in 2013 recommended strongly against creating this kind of a 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." In spite of the CSBA recommendation, then-superintendent Kevin Skelly and the school board opted for the dual approach.
The Garcias' case shows that district employees did not follow the new policy and procedures, chiefly by failing to launch a UCP investigation when it first learned there were allegations of discrimination based on the child's learning disability. Beyond the actual bullying, the Garcias' case also revealed sizeable communication lapses at both the school and district level, compounded by the fact that the Garcias' first language is not English.
The Garcias' son, who has a learning disability, was faring well at Jordan until this January, when other students began to bully him, his parents said in interviews with the Weekly conducted in Spanish.
Two students in particular repeatedly harassed him -- asking him for money or taking his money, stealing his lunch and saying negative things about his parents, the Garcias wrote in a detailed statement that was translated into English by a district liaison and provided in late April to Jordan administrators and the district.
To avoid conflict, the Garcias initially tried to resolve early bullying incidences on their own by talking with the other students' parents. But the aggression continued when, in January, a student pulled their son's pants down during lunch, in front of other students. School administrators were notified, and the bullying student was disciplined and made to apologize to the Garcias' son, according to Autrey.
Yet the bullying of their special-needs son continued, the Garcias said. They repeatedly reported these and other incidents to multiple administrators and staff at Jordan, in writing three times and verbally every week, Garcia said.
Those complaints alone of bullying -- even had they not involved discrimination -- should have triggered a documented investigation by the school, per district policy, and been resolved within 15 days.
In cases of both discriminatory and non-discriminatory bullying, remedial action can include interventions for the victim, including counseling, academic support and information on how to report further incidents of bullying, as well as follow-up inquiries with the victim to ensure that the bullying has stopped and they have not been retaliated against, per district policy. For allegations of discrimination, even if a student or family decides not to file a complaint, principals or the district's compliance officer are required to "implement immediate measures to stop the discrimination and to ensure all students have access to the educational program and a safe school environment," board policy states.
Autrey said that administrators did follow through.
"The administrators followed the appropriate protocol for investigating the reported incidents based on board policy for student misconduct determined by the category of infraction appropriate to the case," Autrey said, such as logging in a database student behavioral incidents and meetings with students as well as investigating and documenting reports of student misconduct.
However, administrators also could have informed the Garcias of the option to file a written Uniform Complaint Procedure form, which they did not, Garcia said.
It is clear in retrospect that administrators did not view the incidents with the same gravity as the Garcias, according to Autrey's letter.
"Upon investigating and asking school officials about these particular incidents (of bullying) they were aware of broad generalities regarding your son not feeling comfortable and feeling mocked by some of the students," Autrey's letter states. "These were very general statements" that did not warrant an investigation "but rather prompt(ed) school officials or their designees (teachers, counselors, psychologists, etc.) to follow up with a student and work with the student and family in an effort to make the school experience more successful."
Autrey refused to state definitively whether Jordan administrators viewed any of the Garcias' complaints as bullying based on a protected class.
Throughout the spring, as the bullying continued, the Garcias said they became frustrated with the school's lack of response and increasingly worried about the well-being of their son, whose grades had plummeted and whose emotional state had declined to the point that he expressed suicidal thoughts to his parents. They worried he might have to repeat sixth grade.
Then came the knife incident on April 18. Despite the Garcias' efforts to sound the alarm for nearly four months, it was not until this point that the district office was notified of the bullying situation, Autrey said. District policy, however, requires site reports of bullying based on a protected class to be forwarded to the district within two days and then investigated and resolved by the district's compliance officer within 60 calendar days. (View this timeline for the required procedures).
The next week, on April 26, the Garcias provided their statement documenting their concerns to both the district and to the Jordan administration. They reported specific incidents of bullying of their son, including the students stealing his lunch, pulling his pants down in front of other students, teasing him about "not being able to read well" and about being in special-education classes. The Garcias also wrote that the incident with the knife was not an "isolated event."
Despite the district getting involved in late April, the bullying escalated further, Garcia said, and extended outside of school to cyberbullying. She provided copies to the school of text messages two female students sent her son, she said.
Worrying for their son's well-being, the Garcias pulled him out of school in May, before the school year ended. They requested a transfer to another Palo Alto middle school. The district's bullying policy provides priority and/or "additional consideration" for transfer within the district for students who have been determined by school personnel to have been the alleged target of bullying.
And after learning from a parent advocate for special-education families about the complaint form that would force a UCP investigation, they submitted one to the district on May 19. They noted on it that the incident with the knife constituted discrimination on the basis of their son's race/ethnicity, disability and age.
When asked why the Garcias' April 26 translated statement -- which clearly alleged bullying based on a protected class -- did not automatically trigger a UCP investigation, Autrey said that he was focused more on supporting the family and was "looking into the situation as a whole."
"The point was to care about and take care of (the Garcias' son) in the situation he was in," Autrey said. "I needed to see from every angle -- educationally, socially, emotionally, every angle, and that would include the discrimination pieces."
Over the summer, on July 11, Autrey issued his determination that several incidents during the last school year at Jordan, including the incident involving the knife, amounted to bullying, but not discrimination based on a protected class.
"There was no compelling evidence that the students acted in a discriminatory manner based on ethnicity or disability," his report states.
Autrey declined in an interview to detail what that evidence was, stating that "there were many factors involved" and the conduct wasn't "exclusively discriminatory on that basis." He would not say what probing he did to determine whether the students involved had bullied anyone besides the Garcias' son, but that his investigation was "holistic" and included looking at students' records "of all kinds."
The Uniform Complaint Procedure requires the investigating compliance officer to consider several factors to "judge the severity" of discriminatory allegations, including looking at how the misconduct affected the subject of the complaint; the type, frequency and duration of the misconduct; and the age, race, gender and/or disability of the subject of the complaint.
Factors the compliance officer may take into account when making a final determination include statements made by the subject of the complaint, the individual accused and other people with relevant knowledge; evidence of how the subject of the complaint reacted to the incident; and evidence of any past instances of unlawful discrimination, including discriminatory harassment, intimidation and/or bullying or other misconduct by the accused individual.
"It was more important," Autrey said, "that if he was bullied at all, which I state he was, that he be supported and we try to get him the very best we could to get him back to being successful."
Falling on deaf ears
While Autrey did not acknowledge that the Garcias' son was discriminated against, he did acknowledge Jordan administrators failed to communicate well with the family. For the Garcias, that lapse only compounded their anxiety and frustration.
The Garcias described Jordan administrators as mostly unresponsive and unwilling to address their ongoing concerns. Despite repeated reports to the assistant principal, secretary, their interpreter, their son's case manager and other staff, the bullying did not cease, the Garcias said.
After the incident with the knife, they said they were told the principal at the time, Tom Jacoubowsky, was too busy to meet with them. When they met instead with then-Assistant Principal Jim Cox on April 19, according to a translated statement from the Garcias, "Mr. Cox started telling us that the incident had not been that serious, that it was done as a game with no intention of harming" their son.
They worried that the student who threatened their son with the knife, who they said was moved out of the school, would return and continue to harass their son. The Garcias said Cox, however, told them not to worry about the student coming back to school, and that "this was happening because (their son) was getting together with bad people," their statement reads.
Autrey declined to tell the Weekly what consequences the bullying students were given, due to confidentiality concerns, but said Jordan administrators followed "due diligence." School and board policy forbid students from possessing or threatening others with any kind of weapon on campus, and students who do so are subject to suspension and/or expulsion.
Frustrated by this conversation with Cox, the Garcias went to the district office, hoping to speak with Superintendent Max McGee. They said they discovered Jacoubowsky there, discussing their son's situation with McGee, and set up a meeting for later that day.
In their meeting with Jacoubowsky, he told them he had only just heard about the incident involving the knife and wasn't aware of any previous bullying, according to the Garcias.
Another key communication failure, they said, was that neither Jordan administrators nor Autrey told them they could file a UCP complaint nor how to navigate the process, as policy requires.
Also, Garcia said Autrey's final letter was provided to the family in English but not in their native language, as California Education Code provides for. Autrey said Monday that he planned to provide a Spanish copy to the Garcias in a meeting this week.
Autrey acknowledged some failures in process in his July letter of findings.
"Although the Jordan administrators were not the subjects of your complaint, through the investigation it was clear that certain processes and protocols regarding student discipline and investigations needs [sic to be reviewed and clarified," Autrey wrote. "This will ensure safe processes that allow an incident to be effectively investigated, while protecting all students involved and communicating with the students' parents/guardians effectively and in a timely fashion."
His letter notes that the Garcias described "several encounters when you were not greeted or welcomed in a manner that you perceived to be helpful or in partnership with school officials."
It was not until they approached the district for help "that school administrators were responsive to you and were available to address your questions," Autrey wrote.
In addition, Garcia said she never received any sort of documents in response to her concerns at Jordan, although district policy requires that documentation of any investigations as well as notice of their outcomes should have been provided to the Garcias.
The Garcias were also shocked that the district did not immediately notify them about the incident with the knife, nor that their son was being questioned by police.
A school board policy on questioning and apprehension of students by law enforcement requires the principal or a designee to "attempt to notify the student's parent/guardian as soon as practicable." Autrey wrote in his letter, however, that "although it is the district's preference and we encourage parental presence in investigations when requested, it is not a fundamental civil right."
The administration also "followed process" by calling police officers to the campus, Autrey said. (Palo Alto Police Sgt. James Reifschneider told the Weekly that the student who threatened the Garcia's son with the knife was issued a juvenile citation for "making threats.")
Ultimately, Autrey said in an interview with the Weekly, "The outcome of my investigation was that we could go above and beyond what we do with communication and even do a better job -- and I think it's our responsibility to do a better job in that regard because we are partners with families and we want to approach families in that spirit ... (and) give every student the opportunity to succeed and fare well at school."
The district has since reviewed its policies related to harassment and student discipline with all secondary-school principals and plans to do so with elementary-school principals soon, Autrey said. The district also plans to put in place a formal review process for these policies to take place at the start of every school year at a leadership retreat to ensure a more uniform approach across the district's schools, he said. (The resolution of the Terman bullying case already requires that the district provide such training.)
A parting of ways
For the Garcias' part, they were hopeful at the start of this school year, when their son began seventh grade at JLS Middle School. The school had provided him with a tutor over the summer to help make up for his academic loss in the previous school year, Garcia said. She also provided the district with an Aug. 4 letter from their son's Permanente Medical Group psychiatrist, stating that he suffers from anxiety and depression related to bullying.
The psychiatrist suggested that "it could be helpful for his school to provide counseling support to help him with peer relationships and his adjustment to his new school. ... I hope that his school can evaluate his needs, provide accommodations and update his IEP (Individualized Education Plan) to help him be more successful in school."
But within a week, a student from Jordan who had also transferred to JLS started bullying him and referred to the knife incident, Garcia said.
Again worrying for his well-being and safety, they pulled him out of school several weeks ago.
He's stayed at home since then, Garcia said. They are now working with district leadership to transfer him out of Palo Alto Unified and into a neighboring school district.
The relationship with the school district still feels more adversarial than collaborative, she said. She and her husband have had to leave work to attend hours-long meetings the district scheduled during the day. They considered hiring an attorney to help them but cannot afford it. They have started recording every meeting they have with school and district administrators.
Autrey, for his part, said moving forward, the district's goal "is to become a kinder place, a place that communicates and partners and really does what's in the best interest of all kids."