Palo Alto Feels Combination of Tough Ed Events

Palo Alto, California residents had a rough year as disruptions came from a long and painful civil rights investigation at a local educational institution and changes in higher education that altered the fabric of the community.

The disruption began in 2013 when the family of a disabled Palo Alto Middle School student caused the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to investigate the district's handling of the bullying of a student.

In December 2012, the agency — which is charged with enforcing civil rights laws in schools and universities — found that Terman Middle School administrators had violated the student's civil rights in their mishandling of the bullying. For nearly a year since then, the district has been struggling to reform its policies that deal with complaints of bullying. As of this month, however, it has yet to finalize new procedures, which was among the conditions it agreed to in order to resolve the federal case.

If the student's family had not shared the resolution agreement with the Palo Alto Weekly the general public may have never known about the investigation and conditions placed on the school district. Even the Board of Education was unaware of the investigation and resolution agreement. They had been told by Superintendent Kevin Skelly in December 2012 that the board didn't even discuss the report. By February Skelly had apologized to board members for not informing them.

"When this thing came out I informed you about it, but I didn't give you the report or share the findings of the Office for Civil Rights group, and I should have done that, bottom line," he said. "From a transparency issue, I blew it."

There had been calls for the board to discuss what had went wrong in the Terman case, but the discussion was never put on the agenda. Critics accused the school board and Skelly of dragging their feet on revising bullying policies and resisting the federal enforcement. The district acknowledged that they needed time to strike a balance between protecting victims and not criminalizing matters that can be properly resolved in the principal's office.

"The realm of incidents that used to be handled purely verbally and privately is shifting into a realm that's being recorded and tracked, so it's important to get it right," board President Barb Mitchell said.

The board plans on taking up the issue again in January. In the meantime other Palo Alto families have filed complaints with the Office for Civil Rights against the school district.

In June, the Office for Civil Rights opened its own investigation at Palo Alto High School, saying it had "received information that (Paly) has not provided prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault."

Though the agency did not specify what prompted its investigation, the notice followed the April publication of a six-part story in the student magazine Verde about a "rape culture" at Paly. The articles included anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled, off-campus sexual assaults of Paly students; interviews with victims of rape and other Paly students; discussion of Paly students; attitudes on victim-blaming and an editorial criticizing the mainstream media's "sympathetic" portrayal of high-school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.

Skelly and other board members have been charged with keeping secrets by parents who have concerns with the high rates of bullying.

Until the Weekly complained earlier this month, meetings of the board's Policy Review Committee, where proposed bullying policies are being hammered out, were not properly noticed to the public as required under the Brown Act, California's open meeting law.

12 29, 2013
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