On Deadline: When 'bullying' harassment in a Palo Alto school became a federal civil-rights case | March 22, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 22, 2013

On Deadline: When 'bullying' harassment in a Palo Alto school became a federal civil-rights case

by Jay Thorwaldson

Since "bullying" recently became a federal case in Palo Alto schools, with a scorching indictment under a "denial of civil rights" report last December, there has been an eruption of commentary on the topic in the Town Square forum at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Everyone seems to have an opinion, many conflicting, on the topic.

News stories reported in detail on the10-page report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Region IX (California) late last year — once the report became public through no action by the Palo Alto Unified School District or Board of Education.

The report, oddly, was dated Dec. 26, 2012 — the day after Christmas. Someone worked long hours on it. It is a compelling read, available at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/pivot/?CivilRightsReport . Also available is an agreement quietly signed by Superintendent Kevin Skelly in mid-December, outlining steps the district will take to tighten its anti-bullying/harassment efforts, training and overall response: www.PaloAltoOnline.com/pivot/?CivilRightsAgreement.

It took the initiative of the student's parents and the Weekly to dig out the agreement, of which school board members weren't aware when it was signed. It raises last year's question of "transparency is as transparency does," at the time relating to non-public e-mails between Skelly and board members.

The report details a difficult case of a student who was subjected to repeated and long-term harassment by other students, whose names were known. It outlines some of the efforts made by school officials to respond and ease the situation. It reflects the frustrations of the student's family that ultimately led them to transfer the student to another school.

But what hasn't been covered, other than in some indirect references, is the serious and long-lasting damage bullying can do to someone, the emotional and psychological scarring that literally can alter the person's life.

Setting aside some of the "just get over it" sentiments expressed in the mostly anonymous online-forum comments (hmm, from a former bully?), the effects can be real, and last for decades. They are not just hurtful and cruel passing jabs.

Bullying isn't new. It was around when I was in grade school in Los Gatos more than a half century ago. And it's been a topic in Palo Alto for well over a decade. In 2001, Jonathan Angel, a former communications student of mine at Stanford University circa 1977, wrote a candid guest opinion for the Weekly detailing his Palo Alto ordeal as something of a different kind of kid. It's worth reading, at www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/morgue/spectrum/2001_Mar_14.GUEST14.html.

His column followed announcement in February 2001 of a new anti-bullying program in schools, spearheaded by the Northern County Juvenile Officers Association.

"I appreciated reading about this training program, but I must confess that my first reaction was selfish, as in: 'Where were you guys 30 years ago?'

"That's because I was bullied throughout my Palo Alto childhood. It started at Walter Hays, reached a peak at Jordan and continued on at Paly. It changed my life, just as San Jose Police officer Curtis Reeves warned attendees at his February training session.

"At Walter Hays, I merely paid the price for being a fat, bookish, unathletic boy who was often put in charge of the film projector or the 'science closet.'

"At Jordan, however, the abuse was as constant as a hailstorm, and went way beyond the usual 'don't pick him for our team' jibes. From day one, I was reminded that I was subhuman," he wrote.

"Only those who have been the victim of bullying truly understand the feeling of 'having no place to go.' ... I withdrew from classes I had really enjoyed taking, such as art and journalism, because there was no protection there from my abusers. My lack of interest in sports and physical expression was compounded. Only in Latin and advanced-placement courses could I find the safe company of fellow misfits."

Teachers were mostly unaware of the situation, except for one: "Jordan's extraordinary coach, Mark Christine, tactfully tried to protect me and develop my limited skills in P.E." Bullying waned in college, but by then "I'd learned to become invisible. The message I'd absorbed was: 'Put your head up, raise your hand, ask someone out, be remembered in any way and you will be hurt.' These feelings of being apart from, and less than, other people took a lot of time and therapy to shake.

"If this sounds like a litany of self-pity, it's not meant to. The kids who bullied me weren't bad; they merely took their own insecurities out on an easily identifiable victim."

Now, more than 40 years hence, Jonathan sees a broader perspective, and recognizes his own role in the complex dynamic between bullies and bullied.

"Each of us can be our own strictest jailer and critic," he said of his acute sense of apartness, in a telephone chat this week. He said it took until his late 40s before he felt completely free of the effects of childhood bullying, long after his graduation from Stanford and after a career in written communications.

He also notes that it "really speaks to our luck and our privilege (in Palo Alto) to be able to even speak about bullying, when there are districts where all the kids are gang members."

"It's part of an unfortunate mix. But I will emphatically say bullying leaves a mark much longer than it's generally recognized."

Yet, he adds, "I still do not forgive the bullies and I do not forgive the system for bullying being more tolerated then."

In 2004-2005, Barron Park Elementary School implemented an anti-bullying program based on the "Steps to Respect" curriculum of Seattle-based nonprofit Committee for Children. Several other Palo Alto schools have followed.

Now Skelly and school administrators are busy responding to the civil rights case: training staff and implementing numerous steps to improve the district's response.

Can bullying be eradicated? I'm doubtful, but it can be minimized through prompt intervention and coordinated, consistently enforced policies — sparing future generations of "different" kids.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes blogs posted on the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).


Like this comment
Posted by pamom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 22, 2013 at 11:54 pm

great column Jay. I really liked the conclusion about the importance to kids' well-being of "prompt intervention and coordinated, consistently enforced policies." In addition to being legally required, complaint procedures help kids. Hey maybe that's why they're legally required. . .

Like this comment
Posted by Mom of a victim
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm

This is a wonderful article, and it cannot be stresses enough how important prompt intervention is. The problem in PA schools has always been a lack of consistent enforcement, which is how the district got into trouble in the first place, along with a lack of any intervention.

The powers that be in PAUSD seem to have forgotten long ago what it was like to be a child, because how children are treated by their peers as well as adults has a great influence on the adults they become.

I have a hard time believing that Kevin Skelly never experienced bullying in his life. But, then, how to explain his lack of empathy?

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