PAUSD invests $2 million in behavioral services following student violence on campuses


Julian Hong and Rohan Bhatia

Recent violent incidents at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and a PAUSD elementary school have mobilized the district to invest $2 million in behavioral services for the coming school year, according to Superintendent Don Austin in an exclusive interview with The Campanile on May 26.

In an email sent to The Campanile, Palo Alto Police Department Investigative Services Captain James Reifschneider said two JLS staff members sustained injuries at the hands of a student on May 5. 

“The two staff members sought treatment at a local hospital following the incident,” Reifschneider said. “(A woman in her 30s) reported the student struck her in the head with a folding chair and kicked her in the stomach and hip. She sustained a concussion, a bump on her head, and back and hip pain. (A woman in her 20s) reported the student punched her in the face multiple times and also bit her on the arm.”

Reifschneider also said the student’s age, under 12 years old, prevented the Police Department from filing criminal charges.

“Due to the age of the student involved and the crimes alleged, no criminal charges are allowed under state law,” Reifschneider said. 

At a May 23 board meeting, math teacher Daniel Nguyen said the district must take a firmer stance against violence in PAUSD schools. Nguyen is also a Paly site representative for the Palo Alto Educators Association, the teachers’ union.

“The district must unequivocally declare it has zero tolerance for violence by committing to pass policies that remove anyone who attacks a staff member or student,” Nguyen said.

According to Nguyen, the district needs to have clearer instructions for staff to follow during similar incidents.

“I’d like to learn more about what exactly the procedures (for violent incidents) are,” Nguyen said. “It would be nice to have at least some sort of documentation about what we should be doing.”

Austin said students with behavioral plans usually have an outline of procedures to follow in case of an incident.

“Some (procedures) include evacuating the class as a prescribed first step in the behavior plan,” Austin said. “Sometimes the students don’t have a behavior plan; in fact, most students don’t have a behavior plan. So then you’re going to follow the protocols: secure the area, give commands, hit the panic button.”

Austin also said the district will implement changes recommended by the Palo Alto Educators Association for the upcoming school year.

“We’re increasing (and budgeting for) the hours of our special education aides so that they all have a consistent number of hours (as recommended by the teachers union),” Austin said. “We were already looking at adding more behavioral support positions in the district, but now we’re going to add another 11 behavioral support positions.”

In addition to hiring more behavioral support staff, Austin said the district is adding a therapeutic services class at Fletcher in addition to the current class at Greene. According to Austin, having these classes at opposite ends of town is beneficial. 

“Therapeutic services is a class that already has a lower number of students and is very specific,” Austin said. “Support services are in place for students that match their needs.”

Austin said the district is hiring a third-party investigator to examine the causes of the violent incident that occurred at JLS and prevent future incidents.

“(The investigator) has done work for (PAUSD) before in high-profile cases,” Austin said. “She’ll look at all the system’s pieces and everyone’s reactions and preparations that either worked or didn’t work. We think this would be a good case for us to learn from to avoid the likelihood of these situations.”

Austin said in response to staff members’ concerns about procedure clarity, PAUSD staff will receive more training in the future.

“Next year, every staff member will have to undergo training on what we call ‘safety care,’” Austin said. “They’re going to have an abbreviated version (of) a two-day certification, (since) we don’t have enough (training) days” 

According to Austin, strong community support fueled an additional $2 million investment into behavioral support services. However, this funding will come from different sources

 “That $2 million was not allocated (in the original budget), so it will come from other places,” Austin said. “After we do this, we will unquestionably be the number one funded school district for behavioral support in California.”

Nguyen said while these changes are a good sign of the district’s aims to improve safety, further steps should be taken to measure their effectiveness.

It’s encouraging that the district is taking these first steps to improve the mental health of our students and the safety of everyone on our campuses,” Nguyen said. “It’s equally important to assess the effectiveness of these changes.

PAEA President Teri Baldwin and Vice President Josh Spira were not immediately available for comment. This story will continue to be updated as more information is available.