Editorial: Targeting parent civility

Union pushes for civility policy for parent problems it won't quantify or detail

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.


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10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2017 at 8:27 am

Reading some of the comments on the previous thread, it seems that uncivil behavior by both parents and teachers is rife.

It follows therefore that there is no surprise we have bullying by students in the schools. They are learning from their elders and betters.

Children mirror our behavior. Be careful, they are watching and will do what they see their parents and teachers demonstrate.

Like this comment
Posted by The gift that keeps giving
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 27, 2017 at 8:54 am

[Post removed.]

29 people like this
Posted by Hardly
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 27, 2017 at 9:23 am

The teachers also thumb their noses at parents and the school district when they refuse to follow district policy, like reduced test stacking, use of online resources to post homework, etc. This is very much a two-way street.

We would respect teachers and their union more if they were truly on the side of a superior education (vs. job security -- even for incompetent teachers; more and more $ for themselves; and little accountability).

21 people like this
Posted by More than one school
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 27, 2017 at 9:40 am

Sounds like they hired another "Yes" person in Conaway, a person that will do the teachers' bidding. Remember, the teacher's union doesn't like people who don't think like they do or don't support their views.

It's amazing to me that as parents, we outnumber the teachers in this district. Yet it seems like we have the least power in shaping the district we all want to have. We have some great teachers, but we also are stuck with teachers no one wants, district administrators that consistently show the students are not the priority, and a school board that can't seem to enact change in employee behavior that's plagued this district for years.

Most parents are civil. If the PAEA wants accountability for parents, I say, "You first.".

17 people like this
Posted by Okay
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 27, 2017 at 9:58 am

It is ironic that the weekly is opining on civility. The allowing of anonymous posts has been perhaps the single most corrosive force promoting uncivility in town. No other community has this. And PA has some of the most uncivil discourse on schools.

The union request is unfortunate, but teachers are under siege in town. Other districts are going to be more attractive places to teach because the board/PA Weekly feel the district doesn't have to compete with other districts for talent. They do.

And working in Palo Alto is not as attractive as other places.

12 people like this
Posted by Marlene Dietrich
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2017 at 11:35 am

My grandma use to say: “We aren’t gold coins that everybody loves” There are wonderful teachers and parents but there are bad ones as well...

Parents and teachers should be protected against bad people...

23 people like this
Posted by District Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2017 at 12:37 pm

The "us against them" mentality needs to go, together with any policy or document that contributes to it. We are all stakeholders in the lives of these children. And we are all people, who have moments we are proud of and moments we are not.

Teachers have principals and administrators who can and should intervene in cases where parents misbehave. I hope those same principals and administrators intervene in cases where teachers misbehave, because I can tell some chilling tales of teacher conduct with both students and parents which was completely disrespectful, and in some instances, the administration did nothing about it. Having a document or policy which makes parents out to seem less than reasonable will not promote dialogue or partnership. I am surprised, given the problems the district is having with complying with federal law, that such a proposal would be made.

Teachers have gone into a profession where client interaction is part of the job. Like any other profession with client interaction, you will see all types of human behavior. I do not doubt that sometimes it is very unpleasant. But avenues already exist to correct this.

14 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 27, 2017 at 12:50 pm

I agree with this: "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."

Otherwise, I fear this is just a devious ruse to forcibly muzzle parents who raise legitimate concerns regarding their children.

13 people like this
Posted by Maomi Hendrick
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2017 at 2:16 pm

I agree this should be two-way street - mutual respect and understanding. I also agree it should not be a kind of "us vs. them". We should be ONE - working together for the best benefit of our children and our district. It appears that parents holding different views or raising ligitimate concerns such as campus safety, quality teaching, tests stacking and fair grading etc.(to name but a few) are easily labeled as "bad" or even "un-civil" parents. Having this "one-way street" civility policy seems to reinforce such labeling and potentially create chilling effect. Because if you, a parent, do not want to be labeled as a bad and un-civil parent, you'd better not to raise your different opinions or suggest anything otherwise that the school admin or teacher does not like to hear. I don't think this is the intent of the policy, but would this policy suggest or incur un-intended consequence instead? Many parents tend to "keep quiet" for their kids' sake, even they are having different views from teachers or school admin. With this kind of policy in place, perhaps more parents will become even "quieter" or completely seal their mouths. That will be very interesting to see in this district - a so-called most liberal district where freedom of speech and expression is supposed to be embraced by everybody?!

25 people like this
Posted by The union's pity party
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2017 at 2:18 pm

What will the union do next? Well, they just got a pay raise that was not budgeted for. They don't work more than 10 months year. They have worked in conjunction with the administration to create a hostile environment for students where in one specific and documented instance after another, students are sexually assaulted on campus, students are molested by teachers, and students have to leave the school district because of intimidation. And the student stress levels are so high due to in some cases extraordinary homework loads that defy logic, with homework assignments sometimes related to broken web sites and web links that have perhaps never worked in years (and the teachers wonder why they get emails?) combined with a lack of coordination by teachers in assigning homework such that some students have chosen to end their own lives?

And now the union attempts to paint themselves as victims as being bullied by the big bad wolf, meaning mothers and fathers of students?

What a disgusting tactic from the union playbook.

18 people like this
Posted by Power Imbalance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 27, 2017 at 8:03 pm

I would welcome this under one condition. That it comes with an ombudsman position that only works for families and not the district. That way,parents have someone they can provide evidence to who has power and teeth to correct a false accusation, and solve a problem underlying a perceived bad attitude. Parents trying to bully teachers won’t get very far, but those being bullied by teachers would be able to turn the tables. If this were a way to get admins to stop falsely accusing parents and using teachers to retaliate, then it will be a good thing.

We had an incident in which we were working very nicely with the superintendent to fix something, and an underling who didn't like us decided we were getting too chummy and wrote a long nasty letter filled with falsehoods and ending in a charge that we sent too many emails, so therefore they were done working with us. Except that wasn’t true, either. One friend told me she was in constant communication daily with her son’s math teacher, but we probably exchanged no more than ten emails in two years. If you take away the responses that are basic acknowledgments or thank you’s, and the repeats of records requests because the district never fills them (seriously giving the runaround and never the records), The number of original emails to all teachers and admins was no more than a few dozen over two years. We had basically given up even responding to the lying letters. I counted the emails to that person and it was like five in eighteen months.

Our experience is that the district people had the unchecked power to create a false record that you couldn’t do anything about without being charged with sending them too much. We always wished for some kind of impartial arbiter because the district office just gets out of hand with people who have no accountability and can take whatever personal grievance they have out in parents they don’t like. Maybe those are outliers overall, but not the case when students had special needs.

The attitude expressed by this proposal is so tone deaf to what has gone wrong here.

2 people like this
Posted by Fair
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 27, 2017 at 9:19 pm

Here's what's fair: let a year go by without a single teacher yelling at the students. Then we'll talk about civility policy.

5 people like this
Posted by Ter
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 27, 2017 at 11:01 pm

Ter is a registered user.

If the District has any sense, it will immediately cease use of the terms civil and uncivil.
It's increase was partially stoked by its law firm (AALR), who uses the term to attack parents. They use it to be hurtful and insulting to suffering parents in a weak position with ill or disabled children.
It is part of your Us vs Them mentality, began by the past law firm and continued by AALR.
Me.Conaway has just shown she condones this behavior by AALR.
She sent this message to teachers: keep it up.
Sadly the tactic has now become so rampant, many district employees use it as a way to insult and demean anyone who disagrees or expresses a concern.
AALR, teachers, unuion, administrators: hear this.The tactic has backfired on you.
Drop it. Now

10 people like this
Posted by I'm with you
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 28, 2017 at 8:16 am

I agree with you my neighbors! Who the heck do these educators think they are?! We charge them with educating our kids and adjudicating every little thing that happens to them in and out of school. In effect, we ask them to parent for us. Yet they have the nerve to yell at unruly kids.

I say we chase these people out of town and replace them all! Then we can do it all again every two years. Until we get to the point where these jerks decide it's not worth working ina town full of highly entitled parents. Then our children with truly and finally soar!

Folks, stop looking down on educators. Just because they don't get paid as highly as we do, doesn't mean they aren't (on the whole) well-intentioned professionals worthy of our respect.

To put a finer point on it, stop being elitist.

13 people like this
Posted by Power Imbalance
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2017 at 9:19 am

@I'm With You,
Ummm, there are serious issues and problems in this district, that @Ter nailed above your out-of-touch comment. Do you realize that teachers in this district make better than the average salary here, that the majority make six figures? In a two-person household, this is far, far more than the average. This means they make more than many of the families who pay their salaries and give sacrificially to their classrooms.

This is not about yelling at unruly kids. This is about administrators who lie to teachers and tell them to do things that result in children with special needs being bullied and ostracized by teachers who don't even know they are being used for someone's personal vendetta. This is about a rich district with an achievement gap they can't seem to close, that can't be made to follow their very own policies for adhering to basic laws. This is about parents who don't want their children sexually assaulted in school, and want protection against subsequent harassment should they have the gall to ask for legally due complaint procedures -- they should not be subjected to nasty interpersonal tactics that come from district legal (giving advice to increase the need for their expensive services).

The district needs to move our legal services to county legal, as Ken Dauber suggested, in order to get advice that protects the district but is also not treating our district like a cash cow and fomenting disconnection between teachers and families. The current legal firm was somehow chosen only because two employees who were responsible for some of the worst offenses and CYA approved. This should not be the basis for choosing the district's legal help.

The board should move to
a) contract with county legal for future services
b) endeavor to undertake some kind of truth and reconciliation to sweep all the crap out from under the rug before it hits the fan again, and
c) work overtly at creating a culture of service, connection, and collaboration.

That last one will result in *actual* civility, not some fake talking points that amount to a bludgeon against vulnerable people the district has a legal duty to protect (not harm). But it can only happen if the district does the first two.

From what I've seen, the worst offenders in the district office were there far too long, and we've still got a few of them. It's unclear whether a better culture can be created if they remain, but certainly this whole proposal and the origin of it are a very bad sign.

4 people like this
Posted by Coverage
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Oct 29, 2017 at 6:53 pm

I am impressed by Palo Alto Online's coverage of this issue. Palo Alto Online took what would have otherwise been seen as a routine bureaucratic decision and identified the negative impact on one group of stakeholders. This group had the least knowledge of the bureaucratic process about to be used to harm it.

By choosing to report on what may have looked like a routine and mundane meeting, Palo Alto Online shown a light on true public concerns. It's on line forum gave a voice to members of the public who likely didn't even know the meeting took place, and could not have attended if they did. The coverage allowed the voiceless to identify real concerns and confirm their real problems and experiences.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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