It has taken two Palo Alto Board of Education elections and the replacement of four out of five trustees, a new Superintendent and a new law firm, but the majority of the school board is finally ready to lead us out of an expensive and unnecessary five-year battle with the federal Department of Education.
On Tuesday night, on a 3-1 vote, the school board directed Superintendent Max McGee and the district's lawyers to finalize a settlement agreement with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) that will commit the district to correcting deficiencies in its current policies and practices, conducting trainings of employees and engaging an independent investigator to conduct investigations that the district failed to properly undertake as reports of sexual harassment and assault came to its attention over the last three years.
The board's actions signify a major shift from its past approach, when it pursued a strategy, formulated in closed sessions without public input and at great expense, of denial and resistance.
This time, in open session, the board properly focused on what the district can learn from OCR and how it can improve its practices to benefit students, their families and school employees.
The district's problems began in 2012, when a disabled Terman Middle School student was the victim of repeated bullying and physical assaults at school. Her family, after many unsuccessful direct appeals to the school and school board for help, finally turned to the Office for Civil Rights, a federal agency that investigates complaints and works with school districts to ensure they respond properly to incidents of harassment and discrimination.
Instead of pursuing an early-resolution process that would have avoided the issuance of findings of fact after a full OCR investigation, in closed session the school board instructed its attorneys to deny the allegations being made by the girl's family and vigorously defend the actions of school employees.
It was a foolish, expensive and ultimately failed strategy, and eventually OCR and the district entered into a settlement agreement in December 2012 that required nothing more onerous than changes to some district policies to bring them in compliance with the law and the training of employees on how to properly respond to reports of bullying and other discriminatory harassment.
But the OCR's letter of findings painted a highly embarrassing picture of how the Terman bullying case had been handled. The entire matter was kept secret from the public, and then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly chose not to inform the school board about either the settlement agreement or the OCR findings. Both became public in early 2013 when the family of the girl delivered the documents to the Weekly. For more than a year, the board met in closed sessions and spent money on having its attorneys research how the district could fight OCR's conclusions and challenge the agency's legal authority.
Then in June 2014, the school board publicly unleashed a written broadside of criticism of OCR's handling of the Terman case and an accusation that the family of the bullied girl had altered documents in an unrelated OCR complaint (an allegation that was later determined to be false). The board unanimously adopted a resolution criticizing OCR and initiated a short-lived and ineffective campaign to persuade federal legislators to examine OCR practices and institute reforms.
Meanwhile, in mid-2013, OCR opened a new investigation into how the school district had responded to reports of sexual assault and "slut shaming" of Palo Alto High School students and in 2014 opened an investigation into how the district handled a sexual harassment and assault case involving two Gunn High School students.
Once again, the school board chose to resist OCR's authority and opted against seeking early resolution of the cases.
Finally, a month ago OCR provided the district with a long-anticipated draft resolution agreement covering both the Paly and Gunn investigations, as well as several other instances of sexual harassment. The school board has until March 7 to finalize the agreement.
Thankfully, with the election of Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza to the school board in November, only Melissa Baten Caswell remains from the board that so badly mishandled these OCR cases. Despite her efforts Tuesday night to continue to treat OCR as an adversary and, for no apparent reason, to raise questions about the experience and judgment of the district's attorney, Collins, DiBrienza and Ken Dauber made clear they expect McGee and the district lawyer to finalize a final agreement without delay.
After just a few meetings of the new school board, it is already obvious that a long overdue commitment to more transparent and disciplined governance is emerging. What this new group may lack in past board experience seems to be more than offset by clear thinking and common sense.