Looking for path forward with Office of Civil Rights PAUSD re-examines history

Emotions ran high as community members and the Palo Alto Board of Education discussed whether to repeal a contentious resolution from 2014 criticizing the Office of Civil Rights’ (OCR) handling of the District’s cases.

Newly seated Board members Jennifer DiBrienza and Todd Collins joined Ken Dauber and a number of community members in support of repealing a resolution passed in 2014, which set up a contentious relationship between PAUSD and OCR by charging that OCR had made substantial errors in their investigations of the District’s alleged civil rights violations. It also committed the District to lobby local and nationally elected officials to support the Board’s challenge to the OCR.

The emotionally charged topic of cooperation with the OCR revived discussion around a few traumatic cases from when the 2014 resolution was adopted. Ravenswood Board of Education member Marielena Gaona-Mendoza — who became personally involved in the District’s OCR cases when she advocated for her niece, a student at Jordan and one of the plaintiffs charging that PAUSD violated her rights to speak out — made a passionate appeal for the current Board members to repeal the 2014 resolution at the meeting on Feb. 14.

“The suffering is real it still hurts every night. [My niece] wakes up with nightmares, the least that you can do is back off on attacking OCR. They were the only ones who believed [her]. My [niece] came here with her little ponytails and said, ‘Board members I come here and ask for help. My auntie told me that if I come you guys are going to help me. The kids call me mentally retarded.’ None of you said ‘Sweetheart we are going to make it better.’”

Marielena Gaona-Mendoza, Ravenswood Board of Education member

Mendoza then went on to criticize the members of the Board that approved the 2014 resolution.

“Shame on all the Board members who were here and shame on all the Board members who [said] let’s write OCR,” Gaona-Mendoza said. “Shame on you Melissa [Baten Caswell] for looking at me and saying you faked the documents.”

When asked about Mendoza’s complaint Baten Caswell said “For the sake of accuracy on my own conduct, I have never made any accusations about specific community members.”

Dauber, DiBrienza and Collins condemned personal attacks, but agreed with Gaona-Mendoza that the 2014 resolution’s combativeness is no longer the position the Board wants to take.

“I think most people agree it doesn’t reflect where we stand today with the OCR,” Collins said. “I do want to say though that this repeal of the resolution is not to me a rebuke aimed at people who supported it. Those individuals did, just as we do, what at the time seemed best and right. But the Board has changed, the times have changed, and we are definitely changing our approach.”

Others made passionate calls to repeal the resolution for misrepresenting community values. They see the 2014 resolution as a source of shame for the District, since it has been used by other Districts around the nation to justify resistance to the OCR in ways that the Palo Alto community may not support.

“With the advent of the new administration’s policies towards immigrant families and students, students with disabilities and the rights of transgender students, I fear that the 2014 resolution could be used as a footnote at the end of the wrong argument,” said Christina Schmidt, a member of the Community Advisory Committee. “I don’t want [PAUSD] to be used as an example of how to undermine the authority of a governmental organization charged with protecting students rights.”

However, the community was not unanimous in their condemnation of the OCR. One community member came to support the 2014 resolution.

“I have known the OCR to be one the most high-handed and arrogant offices in the Department of Education,” said Ze’ev Wurman, a U.S. Department of Education Official under the Bush Administration, who came to the meeting and spoke in support of the resolution. “Not many school Districts are willing to face it. They typically roll over and play dead. In 2014, Palo Alto stood up and bravely stated the facts.”

Deciding to defer to the Board’s judgement, Superintendent Max McGee made no proposal on whether the 2014 resolution should be repealed. Instead he called for a change of tone with the OCR in order to focus on the path forward for the District.

“I think it’s time to look ahead; we spent a lot of time discussing past issues,” McGee said. “I like to look forward to a positive approach to working collaboratively with the OCR and I hope that if we do pass a resolution, others around the country will take note of that because they certainly took note of the old one.”

While Dauber, DiBrienza and Collins made their positions clear, Baten Caswell did not state whether she was for or against repealing the 2014 resolution, but she did defend the previous Board’s decision at the time, and on a conciliatory note she proposed a new resolution calling for cooperation with the OCR going forward.

“We did not [approve the 2014 resolution] in nastiness; we did this out of a sense of [feeling blocked] and you can argue whether it was good or whether it was bad, but the intent was not nasty, the intent was to protect our kids,” Baten Caswell said. “I do believe we can put forward a new resolution and we can move forward.”

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