The Palo Alto school board plans to take a closer look at how staff are implementing policies and procedures for addressing complaints of discriminatory bullying in the wake of the publication of a story in the Palo Alto Weekly about the repeated bullying this year of a special-education middle school student in the district.
The board will discuss implementation of the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure, or UCP, a separate process established to handle bullying complaints based on a protected class, such as race, gender or disability, at a special meeting on special education that had already been scheduled for Dec. 6, board President Heidi Emberling said Thursday.
The board also added a personnel evaluation related to the case to its closed-session agenda for this coming Tuesday, Nov. 15, she said.
This will be the first time the full board discusses the case. Trustees said they were not informed by staff about this particular bullying case, which began in January and has stretched into this school year, and learned about it instead through the Weekly's story, published last Friday, Nov. 4.
The Uniform Complaint Procedure was revised in 2014 at the direction of the federal 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. The district ultimately adopted a two-tiered system: All complaints that do not involve legally protected classes are to be handled at the schools, while those that do automatically start a district-level investigation.
In this particular case, repeated complaints, both verbal and written, over several months from the parents of the student to various staff members at Jordan Middle School and at the district did not trigger a UCP investigation. It was not until the parents filled out a UCP form — which is not required to open an investigation — that the district's investigation began.
At a meeting of the board’s policy review committee (BPRC) Thursday morning, chair Ken Dauber said this family’s case illustrated "a complete failure to implement board policy and consequently, I think, to support the students rights in this area."
The district’s two-tiered approach to handling bullying reports seems to have failed, Dauber said, "to serve as a practical guide for staff decision-making."
"We’re asking staff to decide … whether the UCP should be invoked in a particular case, and if they decide that it shouldn’t because it doesn’t appear on its face to involve a protected class, and only later or never discover that it does, then we’re led into a violation of board policy and also federal and state law," he said.
Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, also the district’s UCP compliance officer, replied that there is a "need for further professional learning" on the policy.
But she defended the district’s handling of this particular case, saying it was "fully investigated" and that staff did their "due diligence" in following proper procedure. Dauber disputed both of those statements. He later said in an interview that "both of those statements were incorrect on their face based on the facts" and that "it would be more productive if we acknowledged those facts and addressed them."
Wade said the parents of the student were informed soon after they first reported incidences of bullying in January that they could file a UCP complaint, and that they declined to do so. The parents, who the Weekly is not identifying to protect their privacy, maintain that neither Jordan staff nor district administrators informed them of the option to file a complaint, and that they would have done so as soon as possible had they known. (They filled out a UCP reporting form in May at the suggestion of a parent-advocate for special-education families in the district.)
Regardless of whether a student or family files a complaint, school administrators or the compliance officer are required by policy to "implement immediate measures necessary to stop the discrimination and to ensure all students have access to the educational program and a safe school environment."
Emberling, who served on the policy review committee when the new bullying policies and procedures were developed, told the Weekly that at that time she "hesitated to support a two-tiered system for precisely this reason, that the burden on the school sites would be greater because then they have to decide if it's meeting the threshold for a UCP complaint or not."
She said she hopes to hear site and district staffs' perspectives on the process, but that a "more consistent approach where anything that meets the threshold of bullying would automatically trigger a UCP complaint" could remove that burden for staff and improve outcomes for students.
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA), expressed concern at the BPRC meeting that cases are rising to the level of a district investigation without any previous attempt to more informal resolution, such as parents meeting with a teacher to talk about a problem. She said she was aware of several teachers who were surprised by the opening of a UCP investigation into an issue that they knew nothing about.
"All of a sudden a teacher just gets a notice … and they have no, no clue whats going on, what happened, anything," Baldwin said. "I think we're going straight to this huge procedure and we’re not dealing with anything at the classroom level."
The district's obligation to investigate any allegations of bullying based on a protected class "does trump that conversation" with teachers, Wade said.
Dauber requested that a review of the district's bullying policy and Uniform Complaint Procedure be placed on the BPRC’s next meeting agenda, scheduled for Dec. 9. Terry Godfrey, the other board member who serves on the committee, supported the idea of a review, given the policy has now been in place for several years.
She later told the Weekly that there appeared to be a "failure to execute on this policy" in the early handling of this family’s case. She refrained from commenting on staff's failure to inform the board about the case until hearing from them what happened.
The board will also likely discuss their oversight of Uniform Complaint Procedure cases at the Dec. 6 special meeting.
Emberling said a quarterly report updating the board on UCP cases would be "useful."
"Otherwise, where’s the transparency?" she said.