In the wake of a federal investigation into the bullying of a special-education student in Palo Alto several years ago, the school district adopted a new, two-tiered policy for addressing reports of bullying and discrimination. Now, one trustee has raised concerns about the policy's potential pitfalls, from creating confusion to noncompliance.
The school board's policy review committee on Friday morning discussed the district's bullying policy, which directs all bullying complaints that do not involve legally protected classes such as race, disability or sex, to be handled at the school sites. Complaints that do allege bullying based on a protected status should automatically trigger a district-level investigation, to be handled under the district's separate Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP).
Trustee Ken Dauber, the outgoing chair of the board's policy review committee, said at Friday's meeting that the more elaborate two-tiered system can lead to staff misclassifications of what is or is not discrimination, a concern he voiced at the time the district adopted the policy in 2014. He pointed to a policy from the California School Board Association, which provides guidance to school districts, that "strongly" recommends districts respond to all bullying complaints at the district level under the Uniform Complaint Procedure "to ensure consistent implementation by district staff.
"It is not always easy or possible for staff to know prior to an investigation whether a student was bullied because of his/her actual or perceived membership in a legally protected class," the policy states.
Any report that is found to involve discriminatory bullying would then be handled under the Uniform Compliant Procedure, and nondiscriminatory cases would be resolved through the appropriate disciplinary process, the School Board Association suggests.
Concerns about the district's response to bullying complaints were renewed last month in a case reported by the Palo Alto Weekly in which a former Jordan Middle School special-education student experienced repeated bullying for months, his parents said.
While Superintendent Max McGee and the committee's other board representative, Terry Godfrey, were supportive of the need for policy revision, a district attorney advised against it.
Dora Dome of Oakland-based firm Dora Dome Law described having a single, uniform process for responding to bullying reports as the "easy way out."
"But it's not practical," she said via speaker phone, warning that a potential increase in investigations could be too much for an already overwhelmed staff. In a training for Palo Alto Unified administrators the day before on the Uniform Complaint Procedure, they reported feeling "totally overwhelmed with the level of investigation and detail they have to go through in order to allow a report to be generated," Dome said.
"I don't believe, in my professional opinion, that it's best practice to impose this level of process on any complaint that comes in regardless of content," she said. "I just don't think its practical for any district — not just yours, but any district — to actually do that."
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association (PAEA), was similarly concerned that moving to a single process would bring a spike in formal complaints. She urged any revision of the system to include language that encourages early resolution whenever possible.
"Having taught kindergarten, if everything has to go through this UCP, you're going to have a lot of these," she said. "At some point you need to work it out in the classroom, with the families."
Dauber said the "risk" of not properly investigating a bullying case that does involve discrimination, pointing to the most recent case reported in the Weekly, "outweighs" the administrative issues Dome raised, which he called "overblown."
Godfrey, who will become the policy committee's new chair in 2017, said it's time for the district to review the bullying policy it put in place several years ago. She also suggested "calibration training" for staff that provides specific, real-world scenarios and teaches them how to best assess and respond.
Dome said in her experience, it's the norm rather than the exception for districts to neglect the Uniform Complaint Procedure.
"I would be shocked if there's any district in the state that actually does a UCP for every bullying complaint that comes in. As a matter of fact, my experience has been that most districts don't even use UCP in the cases that they are required to," she said.
It's more a question of training, Dome said — making sure there's an established process that staff are familiar with and that there is someone they can consult with when they're unsure about whether something rises to the level of discrimination, thus meriting a district investigation.
Two days before, representatives from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights came to Palo Alto to share initial findings and a draft resolution agreement for two open investigations into multiple reports of sexual harassment at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools. One concern they shared, McGee said, is that the district's UCP policy conflicts with some of the federal agency's own "regulations and expectations." They advised the district to look at the California School Board Association's sample policies on Uniform Complaint Procedure and sexual harassment, which the Office for Civil Rights have vetted, said Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade.
"We will have some work to do on our UCP and we are asking for their help in doing so," McGee said of the Office for Civil Rights.
Dauber also proposed revising the district's very definition of bullying to shift from a discipline-centric focus to one that encourages investigation of incidences that could disrupt a student's educational environment, regardless if they rise to the level of discipline or not.
The district uses California Education Code's definition of bullying: "any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or by means of an electronic act, and including one or more acts committed by a pupil or group of pupils that constitutes sex harassment, hate violence or creates an intimidating or hostile educational environment" directed at one or more students that can make them fearful of further harm, harm their physical or mental health or interfere with their education.
Dauber worried that "if we have a definition of bullying that's restricted to conduct that is subject to discipline then we're going to miss some conduct that isn't subject to discipline but that we are actually obligated to respond to and has a negative effect on the education of the target" of the bullying.
He pointed to a definition from national bullying prevention program Olweus, which states that "a person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself." Bullying includes aggressive behavior that involves unwanted, negative actions; a pattern of behavior repeated over time; and an imbalance of power or strength, Olweus states.
Dome responded that the Education Code's definition provides legal clarity for when the district can "assert jurisdiction." She advised the district against replacing its definition and to avoid adding language such as "imbalance of power" that might be confused by staff as a requirement for categorizing an incident as bullying.
Sharon Ofek, the district's new chief academic officer for secondary education, said as a longtime middle school administrator, she appreciates the current policy's specificity. Olweus' definition is too broad and "open to individual interpretation," she said.
Godfrey said clarifying the definition is important for all staff, from teachers in classrooms to yard duties monitoring students during recess and lunch.
"I think some of the confusion lies there," she said. "When is this really bullying versus two kids who are on equal footing having a disagreement?"
The board policy review committee will likely take this up in the new year. The committee's next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 26 at 8:30 a.m. at the district office.
In response to the recent bullying case at Jordan, the school board will also discuss the Uniform Complaint Procedure at a special meeting on special education Tuesday, Dec. 13, from 8-10 a.m. at the district office.