Rescind, replace and approve | February 24, 2017 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - February 24, 2017

Rescind, replace and approve

It's finally time for school district to take responsibility for past missteps with OCR

The Palo Alto Board of Education will make two important decisions next Tuesday night, and both will say a lot about what kind of district we are and the values of our current five trustees.

The first decision will be to rescind a 2014 board resolution, unanimously adopted at the time, that sharply criticized the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for how it handled several 2013 investigations into the school district.

The resolution, which former Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt recently described as "fundamentally contrary to our community values," accused the agency of being "purposefully confrontational" and of arriving at "faulty" conclusions when it said the district failed to properly investigate and stop years of bullying of a disabled Terman Middle School student. The resolution also accused the complainant in the Terman case of document tampering, a scurrilous and defamatory allegation shown to have been false.

According to billing records obtained by the Weekly through a 2014 Public Records Act request, the district's law firm spent approximately $50,000 to research and prepare the resolution.

The second decision the board will make Tuesday will be to approve a new settlement agreement to resolve recently concluded OCR investigations, initiated in 2013 and 2014, into how the district responded to allegations of sexual harassment and assault involving Palo Alto and Gunn high school students.

The district vigorously tried to stop these investigations, which later expanded as new sexual harassment allegations surfaced against Paly principal Phil Winston, English teacher Kevin Sharp and science teacher Ronnie Farrell and Ohlone Elementary School's teacher Michael Airo.

The draft resolution agreement commits the district to revise and correct certain district policies to bring them into conformance with state and federal law, to conduct further training of staff and to complete investigations that it should have conducted at the time of the allegations.

A similar December 2013 agreement relating to the Terman bullying case was signed by then-Superintendent Kevin Skelly without the board or public even knowing about it. It was immediately followed by the issuance of a formal letter of detailed findings by OCR outlining its conclusions that the school violated the civil rights of the student by not conducting a proper investigation or taking appropriate steps to stop the bullying.

The findings were highly embarrassing to the district and over the months that followed, in closed session, the board and its law firm devoted substantial financial and other resources to fighting and resisting OCR without making their actions public until immediately prior to adopting the June 2014 resolution criticizing the agency.

This time around, with four of the five board members who voted for the resolution now gone, the district has taken a cooperative posture, acknowledging mistakes and accepting responsibility for correcting them, and has deliberated almost entirely in open session.

Comments made by board members at the last two board meetings suggest that only Melissa Baten Caswell, the one trustee who remains from 2014, has reservations about rescinding the 2014 resolution or finalizing the new agreement.

In a highly unusual attempt to influence the current board, former school board President Barb Mitchell, who was the architect of the 2014 resolution, has written at least three letters to board members urging them not to rescind the resolution. She first suggested, incorrectly, that the current board doesn't have the legal authority to rescind it and that doing so would violate board policy. Then last week, without offering any specifics, she accused OCR of not interviewing four people over the course of 12 investigations who had "evidence" contradicting other evidence. Enough.

The 2014 resolution, as Burt pointed out, was a dark and embarrassing moment in Palo Alto political history. It should be rescinded, we hope with a unanimous vote. Baten Caswell's proposal for a new resolution expressing the district's support for OCR's work and mission would also be a welcome companion action, but not an alternative.

The board should also approve, as a majority has already indicated it would, the resolution agreement with OCR ending the sexual harassment investigations. Concerns that carrying out the agreement will cost the district money reflect the same attitude that got us into this mess in the first place. Instead of conducting proper and prompt investigations when allegations of misconduct have been made, as required by law, our district repeatedly took little or no action and failed to follow its own policies.

In doing so, the district failed to protect students, modeled disrespect for the legal protections provided under Title IX and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers fighting OCR, almost all outside the public eye in closed session.

It is time to finally do the right thing and put this sad chapter behind us.

Comments

Posted by Ken Dauber, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 24, 2017 at 11:57 am

One small correction to this editorial: the editorial says that the board "has deliberated almost entirely in open session" on the draft Resolution Agreement and on the question of rescinding the 2014 resolution. In fact, the board has not discussed these issues in closed session, as the published closed session agendas reflect. I don't believe that there is a closed meeting exception under the Brown Act that would permit the board to meet in closed session to discuss these issues.

As I said at the last board meeting, I'm looking forward to voting to approve the Resolution Agreement with OCR and to repeal the 2014 resolution, and to a more cooperative relationship with OCR that will better serve our students.


Posted by name withheld, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2017 at 9:18 am

I have a question. We had trouble with a 504 and were aggressively retaliated against. We stopped even asking for help because when we did, that only ratcheted up their lies and retaliation. There definitely was a cultivated cover up culture, and none of the people involved has ever been held to account. I can't see that it has changed. Addtionally, there doesn't seem to be anything like whistleblower protection, so complaining about the illegal retaliation has seemed foolhardy and dangerous. But the evidence is still there, and the denial of educational needs continues to have an impact.

This isn't a Title IX issue, though. Does this mean only past Title IX problems are of interest, or will there finally be recourse to document and end ignoring the 504 and end the persistent retaliation? Since OCR pretty much only pays attention to retaliation after you prove it, it makes no sense to go to them while a child is still in school because going to them is what caused the retaliation in the first place. Our district is still messed up, as far as I can see.


Posted by name withheld, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 25, 2017 at 9:24 am

I mean, will there be a mechanism to bring evidence anonymously to the district board and avoid going to the OCR maybe? Does district legal still basically act as personal lawyers for district personnel regardless of their behavior, or is there a clear mandate for the legal team to serve the district and families? Itseems to me the latter should be legally the case, but the former is what we always had before. Has that changed?


Posted by Duveneck Parent, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 25, 2017 at 10:36 am

@name withheld - there is no ombudsman for what you describe, but the nearest thing would be to contact a school board member. Their contact info (email and phone) is on the board page of the district website (Web Link). They vary in skills, interests, attitude, and experience but they are each a resource for families who feel they are not getting a fair shake.


Posted by Kerry, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 25, 2017 at 11:25 am

I don't understand why our school board is giving in to the OCR. It's original decision to fight back was correct, imo. The new Trump administration will probably reign in the out-of-control OCR (or eliminate it all together). How can our local political leaders, including the Weekly, be so out of step with reality?


Posted by fertig, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 25, 2017 at 12:09 pm

"The new Trump administration will probably reign in the out-of-control OCR (or eliminate it all together)."

Hence, no reason to continue with the resolution. It's done it's job and OCR are not responding in a reasonable time and all the OCR staff that were the cause of the original issue have moved on.


Posted by Nobody special, a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 25, 2017 at 12:36 pm

@Kerry, yes that whole obey the law, protect civil rights, do right by people thing - that is sooo 2014! Someone should just declare the Weekly fake news and tell those school board members to get with the program. Sad!


Posted by PTA Member, a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 25, 2017 at 12:40 pm

I have higher standards for our school district than "grab them by the p***y" Trump. Thanks to the board for finally acting to protect students rather than perpetrators.


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