News

Editorial: Toward a mea culpa

New school board majority opts for more humble, collaborative course with Office for Civil Rights

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.

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Comments

25 people like this
Posted by Long time coming
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 27, 2017 at 9:29 am

Thanks to trustees, except Caswell of course. Time to get real and focus on doing the right thing for students.


7 people like this
Posted by Repeal it!
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 27, 2017 at 11:15 am

[Post removed.]


20 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 27, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Huzzah!

Another perceptive, helpful, right-on editorial.

It'll be a relief to see our district finally move beyond this matter.

Thank you to the new board.


16 people like this
Posted by Apologies Work
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 27, 2017 at 3:49 pm

Dear Editors:
You missed one. OCR settlement agreement. It may not have been a big deal to others, but it was the reason anyone who needed a 504 after us was actually able to get procedures instead of a runaround. Having to be the "fall guy" for that problem also did a lot of damage in our lives and to our child's ability to trust adults, and the person most responsible has never changed or apologized.

It was also a reason we were treated in an increasingly hostile and even retaliatory way by employees especially administrators and why we and esp our child felt unsafe at school, unable to really address the issues in the 504 and educational, and unable to remain in the district schools. We have never sued, never threatened to sue, yet have never been allowed much less welcomed to give the copious evidence of backbiting and retaliation, clear evidence of violation of the 504, and seriously unprofessional treatment. We have instead been treated to repeated and gross violations of records laws in our attempts to simply be sure there aren't old libels in our child's records to haunt in later life. We have a right to be given and to correct those, even if we continue to feel unwelcome and unsafe to ever return to PAUSD schools.

I think a certain person doesn't understand that we have clear evidence of staff plotting to hold the 504 meeting without us, trying to mislead us into signing our agreement, trying to re-evaluate the 504 to strip it when they thought the OCR wasn't looking (they didn't succeed, but the attempt is well documented), misrepresenting correspondence in ways that can be objectively disproven, deliberately mistreating our child, baiting us parents, etc, and thus that person has compounded the problems by violating all state and FERPA records law (probably thinking if they didn't provide records, they might thwart ever having to admit their misdeeds to themselves?) we have not pressed it, because when we did in the past, it triggered the escalating retaliations and backbiting.

It's all documented, by the way. Board knows who to reach out to. Just an apology and an attempt at truth an reconciliation, and recognizing what went wrong, would go a long way. This district talks a big game about how it wants families to try to work things out rather than going to the OCR, but if you do anything but make it clear you will make their lives hell you will be ignored at best, mistreated more like. Much could have been done to help a lot of our kids be healthier and safer in school as a result of what we went through, and that was lost in the district's inexplicable behavior.

I appreciate this editorial, but I don't think some of the core problems will be truly fixed unless certain personnel leave or have a Road to Damascus (er, road to ethics) conversion. I think it's a shame because the unnecessary CYA was their proverbial shooting themselves in the foot, and I think hampered what could have been a triumphant tenure for McGee. I look for this board to do more than just go for bandaids for what were truly deep wounds inflicted by the district. That OCR letter debacle was quite a slap, the district needed to look at its own behavior with its families. Still does.

There still doesn't seem to be a mechanism out if the echo chamber at the district office. Administrators still don't understand how off the rails they can go/be, when they can look only at one side, use only their alternative "facts", and reinforce their own biases in self-serving ways, and there is no one impartial to discuss problem with and work for solutions. This City needs an ombudsperson position, established by the City, with independent authority, so we can take care of our own.





16 people like this
Posted by TIMOTHY
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 27, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Good going Dauber, DiBrienza and Collins! Thumbs down for Casswell.


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