The Palo Alto Board of Education will make two important decisions next Tuesday night, and both will say a lot about what kind of district we are and the values of our current five trustees.
The first decision will be to rescind a 2014 board resolution, unanimously adopted at the time, that sharply criticized the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for how it handled several 2012-13 investigations into the school district.
The resolution, which former Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt recently described as "fundamentally contrary to our community values," accused the agency of being "purposefully confrontational" and of arriving at "faulty" conclusions when it said the district failed to properly investigate and stop years of bullying of a disabled Terman Middle School student. The resolution also accused the complainant in the Terman case of document tampering, a scurrilous and defamatory allegation shown to have been false.
According to billing records obtained by the Weekly through a 2014 Public Records Act request, the district's law firm spent approximately $50,000 to research and prepare the resolution.
The second decision the board will make Tuesday will be to approve a new settlement agreement to resolve recently concluded OCR investigations, initiated in 2013 and 2014, into how the district responded to allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving Palo Alto and Gunn high school students.
The district vigorously tried to stop these investigations, which later expanded as new sexual harassment allegations surfaced against Paly principal Phil Winston, English teacher Kevin Sharp and science teacher Ronnie Farrell and Ohlone Elementary School's teacher Michael Airo.
The draft resolution agreement commits the district to revise and correct certain district policies to bring them into conformance with state and federal law, to conduct further training of staff and to complete investigations that it should have conducted at the time of the allegations.
A similar December 2012 agreement relating to the Terman bullying case was signed by then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly without the board or public even knowing about it. It was immediately followed by the issuance of a formal letter of detailed findings by OCR outlining its conclusions that the school violated the civil rights of the student by not conducting a proper investigation or taking appropriate steps to stop the bullying.
The findings were highly embarrassing to the district and over the months that followed, in closed session, the board and its law firm devoted substantial financial and other resources to fighting and resisting OCR without making their actions public until immediately prior to adopting the June 2014 resolution criticizing the agency.
This time around, with four of the five board members who voted for the resolution now gone, the district has taken a cooperative posture, acknowledging mistakes and accepting responsibility for correcting them, and has deliberated almost entirely in open session.
Comments made by board members at the last two board meetings suggest that only Melissa Baten Caswell, the one trustee who remains from 2014, has reservations about rescinding the 2014 resolution or finalizing the new agreement.
In a highly unusual attempt to influence the current board, former school board President Barb Mitchell, who was the architect of the 2014 resolution, has written at least three letters to board members urging them not to rescind the resolution. She first suggested, incorrectly, that the current board doesn't have the legal authority to rescind it and that doing so would violate board policy. Then last week, without offering any specifics, she accused OCR of not interviewing four people over the course of 12 investigations who had "evidence" contradicting other evidence.
The 2014 resolution, as Burt pointed out, was a dark and embarrassing moment in Palo Alto political history. It should be rescinded, we hope with a unanimous vote. Baten Caswell's proposal for a new resolution expressing the district's support for OCR's work and mission would also be a welcome companion action, but not an alternative.
The board should also approve, as a majority has already indicated it would, the resolution agreement with OCR ending the sexual harassment investigations. Concerns that carrying out the agreement will cost the district money reflect the same attitude that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead of conducting proper and prompt investigations when allegations of misconduct have been made, as required by law, our district repeatedly took little or no action and failed to follow its own policies.
In doing so, the district failed to protect students, modeled disrespect for the legal protections provided under Title IX and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers fighting OCR, almost all outside the public eye in closed session.
It is time to finally do the right thing and put this sad chapter behind us.