A group of six Gunn High School boys have faced violent bullying and harassment, including racial slurs, that administrators didn't adequately respond to, according to claims recently filed by the students and their parents.
Since the beginning of the school year, the six students, who are all freshmen or sophomores, have been "constantly bullied, harassed and physically attacked by fellow students," according to a redacted version of one of the personal injury claims that Seth Rosenberg, the attorney representing the families, shared with the Weekly.
The students include one who is Black, others who are of European or Middle Eastern descent and some who have an IEP or 504 Plan, Rosenberg said. The Weekly is not naming the students or parents involved to protect their privacy.
The claim, which was mailed to the school district Oct. 29, describes alleged physical assaults that led one student to go to the emergency room, two more to see the nurse and another to suffer a head injury. It also describes the Black student being repeatedly called the N-word.
The response from Gunn administrators has been "unreasonable, impractical and ineffective," leading to "ongoing and pervasive" problems for the students, according to the claim.
"This situation has been ... extremely difficult for our children and our families, and is not something we ever expected to face," the parents said through their attorney. "The harassment and intimidation has continued and is impacting the academics and mental health of our children."
According to Rosenberg, the school district has 45 days to accept or reject the students' claims from the date they were received. If the district rejects the claims or doesn't respond in time, Rosenberg said the families would typically have six months to file a lawsuit.
The district's Board of Education met in a special closed session Nov. 2 to confer with its legal counsel about the families' claims, which were listed on the agenda as "anticipated litigation." The board took no formal action at the meeting, board President Shounak Dharap said.
Dharap and Superintendent Don Austin both declined interview requests for this article. Dharap said that as a practice, board members don't comment on pending or anticipated litigation, but he referred questions to the district's legal counsel and Austin, who said he was unable to discuss the situation.
Gunn Principal Wendy Stratton said in a text that the school's administration "is committed and works diligently to ensure the safety of our students on a daily basis," but declined to comment further, citing student privacy protections and an active investigation.
Bullying has long been a concern in Palo Alto schools, including a 2011 case in which a middle-school student's long struggle against bullying triggered an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which concluded the district's mishandling of it violated federal antidiscrimination laws and required remedial actions.
There was also a 2016 case in which a special-education student at Jordan Middle School (now known as Frank S. Greene Jr. Middle School) was repeatedly bullied, [causing the school board to examine how staff were responding to complaints of discriminatory bullying. Rosenberg also represented that family in a lawsuit against the district, which ultimately led to a $50,000 settlement.
The bullying of the current six students began on the first day of the school year, when a student asked one of the boys for a piece of fruit he had and then threw it at the back of another kid's head, according to the claim. Students then started picking on the Black student and calling him the racial epithet, the claim states, as well as calling one of the six boys gay.
The group also allegedly noticed the students who were bullying them "slapping the rear ends of girls at school and verbally harassing them with sexual advances."
In September, three of the boys spoke with Gunn administrators to report the students who were bullying them, according to the claim. When the behavior wasn't addressed by the school, they allegedly returned to report that it was continuing.
Administrators then called the boy's parents, assuring them that their children were safe and the situation was being appropriately managed, according to the claim. However, "the incessant bullying and harassment continued," the claim states, with students threatening and insulting the boys for reporting them to school staff.
The situation allegedly turned violent on Oct. 5, when two students ambushed some of the boys in a bathroom. They "screamed for help in the bathroom, but no help came," according to the claim. As a result of the attack, one of the boys went to the hospital because his ear was bleeding, while two more went to the nurse because they had been struck in the neck, the claim states.
Shortly afterwards, a group of students attacked one of the boys in the locker room and "pummeled" him with fists and kicks, while recording the attack and later posting it on social media, the claim states, going on to say that he suffered a head injury and experienced headaches and back pain.
The boys were then "interrogated" in the school's administration office and their parents were only notified four to five hours later, according to the claim. Although the perpetrators appear to have been briefly suspended, the boys allegedly continued to receive threats, both in person and online.
The school's response to the attacks and other bullying was to tell the boys to use only specific restrooms and to check in with the school before attending certain Gunn events.
"Essentially, GHS wanted to curtail these boys' school experience and treat the assailants and victims as equals," the complaint states. "This is especially troubling as the assailants had a history of violent behavior known to GHS even before the issues addressed herein."
Because Gunn wasn't able to keep them safe, the six children didn't attend school for a period of time and, after returning Oct. 24, they have continued to face threats and insults, the complaint states. Administrators have not excused those absences, even though they were due to "legitimate safety concerns," the parents said through their attorney.
The parents say they want the district to transfer their children to a different and safe school and to "start taking bullying and the associated violence seriously and not allow or tolerate retribution when students report harassment."
The families went on to say that they want to see administrators respond quickly and effectively, so students feel safe.
"They should be able to walk the school campus without constantly looking over their shoulders for danger and be able to go into a locker room or a bathroom without fear of an attack," they said. "School should be a place to learn, make friends, and have fun, without needing to be alert, guarded and hyper-vigilant."