Palo Alto parents are well-known for both their active and generous support of teachers and the schools and their strong advocacy on behalf of their children — advocacy that can sometimes cross the line and lead to unpleasant interactions with teachers.
This is an age-old reality, made more complicated by the fact that some parents have the time to volunteer in the classroom and develop personal relationships with teachers, while others don't have that luxury and can feel isolated and not as connected with teachers or the school community. It can lead some to feel privileged and well cared for and others to feel shunned when raising concerns.
And some teachers and parents are outliers, failing to communicate with each other respectfully, efficiently and in a timely manner, leaving one or the other, or both, feeling aggrieved. Technology, in the form of text messaging, emails and cell phones, has only provided more opportunity for bad outcomes in parent-teacher communications.
The Palo Alto teachers' union wrongly thinks these challenges would be helped by adoption of a new district "civility" policy that would attempt to define inappropriate parent behavior and give teachers the right to demand that a parent who violates the policy leave the school grounds and be banned from campus for up to seven days or even face arrest under an existing Penal Code section that prohibits interference with school activities.
The union offers no specific proposal, nor any background statement or documentation of cases that warrant such remedies, which already exist in state law. Palo Alto Educators Association President Teri Baldwin told the school board's policy committee last week that teachers "have complained that they're getting emailed constantly by some parents at all hours of the night, sometimes very harshly, (and of) teachers being yelled at in meetings and administrators not stopping the meeting."
Baldwin told the Weekly she does not know how frequently incidents occur but said she knew of about eight "extreme" cases in the last two years throughout all Palo Alto schools.
Lana Conaway, who was hired by the district just three months ago as assistant superintendent of strategic initiatives and operations, also supported an undefined new policy, saying, "I think we need to have teeth, and a policy is the only thing that's going to give us the real teeth that we need to address this proactively."
In an email to a skeptical parent, Conaway said she had "more reports than I am comfortable with regarding things being thrown at teachers, yelling and cursing, and calling names etc.," but when asked for details of these reports she told the Weekly that she was "not aware of any specific cases or within any specific year or timeframe of such misconduct."
We would hope for a bit more circumspection from a brand new senior administrator before lining up in favor of a policy of this sort.
The union and Conaway point to a Los Altos School District policy, adopted 10 years ago, as a possible model. It encourages "positive communication and discourages volatile, hostile or aggressive actions" and applies to parents "who harass staff with frequent and abusive emails" or speak in a "demanding, loud, insulting and/or demeaning manner." The policy comes with a "civility incident report" form. Los Altos Superintendent Jeffrey Baier said the policy is used "infrequently."
There could hardly be a more inopportune time for the district to spend time on a new policy that tries to codify acceptable parent behavior and give teachers "teeth" to deal with miscreants who send too many emails or raise their voices in meetings.
Over the last three years, multiple teachers have been fired for sexual harassment or assault; administrators at Paly, including Principal Kim Diorio, have been called out by the federal Office for Civil Rights and outside investigators for violations of district policies in their handling of sexual harassment and assault allegations; and the district has repeatedly failed to follow district policies and state and federal law regarding the handling of parent complaints.
And the union wants to make parent behavior an issue right now?
If the teachers' union truly believes abusive parent behavior is a problem, then it should come forward with a written proposal and evidence that a significant problem exists that would be remedied by a new policy. But just as current district policy outlines complaint procedures for parents with concerns about teacher behavior, any new policy should focus on providing teachers with a similar method of resolving their differences with parents, not creating impossibly vague and subjective standards for parent conduct.
School board President Terry Godfrey, who chairs the policy committee, had it right when she said existing policy and law were adequate to address whatever problems with parents' behavior that may exist, and we hope this proposal dies a quiet death in committee.