Board members differ on how to handle bullying complaints | December 6, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 6, 2013

Board members differ on how to handle bullying complaints

School committee weighs clarity versus risk of escalating minor disputes

by Chris Kenrick

A debate on the degree to which playground and other school complaints should be resolved by a teacher or principal versus being formally sent to the district office was at the crux of a Palo Alto Board of Education committee discussion Tuesday.

In pondering a proposed policy on bullying, the two members of the school board's Policy Review Committee disagreed over whether all complaints should be forwarded to the district office or whether that procedure initially should be reserved only for complaints of bullying based on things like disability, religion or sexual orientation.

Committee member Melissa Baten Caswell said that for the sake of clarity and simplicity, all complaints about bullying, whether run-of-the-mill or involving so-called "protected classes" of students, be treated the same, using a Uniform Complaint Procedure at the district office.

But committee member Camille Townsend worried that such an approach could lead to undue "formalization" and "criminalization" of minor playground issues that are better resolved at the school level.

"The farther away we get from solving disputes in the classroom, the more formal and criminal it gets," Townsend said. "We've all seen cases where someone gets tripped on purpose, or someone gets called a name on purpose. Are we really sending those up to the district office to be handled? Not in my book."

But Caswell worried that a two-tiered complaint process, which elevates the initial level of scrutiny for children in "protected classes," could put teachers, principals and playground supervisors in the position of having to make hasty calls, in ambiguous situations, as to why a child is being picked on.

"It's hard to ask those people to look at what's going on when there's a particular confrontation and make the judgment whether it's a protected-class issue," she said.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who initially said Tuesday he was leaning toward a single system for handling all bullying complaints, said he would poll teachers and principals and return to the board in January with a recommendation.

School district staff and lawyers have spent nearly a year trying to fashion a new policy on bullying as part of a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which found in December 2012 that the district's mishandling of the bullying of a disabled middle school student violated the student's civil rights.

Tuesday's board Policy Review Committee meeting was the first publicized board-level discussion of details of a new proposed policy. The committee has met many times to develop district policies but the meetings were not properly noticed to the public as required under the Brown Act, California's open meeting law.

When the Weekly raised the issue two weeks ago, school board President Dana Tom said the lack of notice was an oversight and that from now on meetings would be announced, agendas posted and the public welcome to attend and speak.

Several parents at Tuesday's meeting urged the board to adopt a single policy for handling all bullying complaints.

"It's better to have just have one Uniform Complaint Procedure that is standardized," parent Dena Dersh said. "This will enhance transparency, increase consistency and promote accuracy."

Parent Christina Schmidt worried that a policy that's confusing to people would increase the odds of it not being followed.

"We need to put trust in the system," she said.

Oakland lawyer Dora Dome, who has consulted with the district in helping to draft the new policy, had urged the two-tiered system in order to prevent the district office being overwhelmed with complaints.

She noted that well-established procedure and protections also exist for bullying victims who are not in "protected classes," including appeal to the district office.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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