Why I Am Asking the FPPC for Advice About OCR

I recently wrote to the California Fair Political Practices Committee (FPPC) for formal written advice on whether my past work and advocacy in relation to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) prevents me from voting on matters involving OCR as a member of the PAUSD school board. The PAUSD conflict of interest code and the Political Reform Act provide that a conflict arises when an elected official has a personal financial interest in a decision. I don’t believe I have a conflict of interest, as neither I nor anyone in my family has any financial interest in any matters involving OCR.

However, this question has been raised repeatedly, and I expect it may be raised again as issues involving OCR come before the board in the coming year. That is why I am asking the FPPC for advice in order to definitively resolve this issue. I included in my letter to the FPPC a full description of my prior consulting relationship with OCR, my advocacy in the community around related issues, and all correspondence I have had with anyone at OCR on any issues relating to Palo Alto. My letter and all attachments are available for downloading from Google Drive.

Mission and Role of the Office for Civil Rights

Our nation recently celebrated the 50th anniversaries of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These laws, along with others, prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and in employment, education, housing, and political participation. Protecting equal opportunity is particularly important in education, which historically has been the mechanism by which individuals and groups are able to overcome discrimination.

For nearly fifty years, OCR has been the “guardian of civil rights in educational institutions nationwide, ” as Assistant Secretary Catherine Lhamon (herself a Paly grad, shown below talking about Title IX), wrote in the 2013-14 annual report to President Obama.  OCR is responsible for ensuring compliance with our nation’s civil rights laws in public education including Title IX (which prohibits gender-based discrimination in public education, signed into law in 1972), and other laws that guarantee equal educational opportunity free of discrimination on the basis of disability, race, sexual orientation, or national origin.

OCR's focus is on supporting districts in complying with the law, rather than punishing noncompliance. It carries out this mission by reaching corrective agreements (Resolution Agreements) with districts during or after investigations of compliance issues. In addition, OCR provides technical assistance and training to school districts and communities about how to identify, monitor, and correct discrimination. A 2013 presentation on disability rights issues by OCR lawyers, organized by community groups in Palo Alto, was one of 400 such events nationwide, according to OCR’s annual report.

Another of OCR’s responsibilities is surveying all school districts in the country on topics such as access to a college prep curriculum and discipline rates in the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). I helped OCR as a consultant on data analysis and website design for the CRDC from 2009-12 at the request of Russlynn Ali, the former Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.

OCR in Palo Alto

I first learned of OCR’s involvement in Palo Alto in February 2013, when it was reported in the press that OCR had responded to a complaint from the family of a disabled Terman student with a finding of noncompliance with federal law. OCR found that the student had been severely bullied due to disability and that the school had not done enough to protect that student or stop the bullying. This finding led to a Resolution Agreement with OCR that yielded several positive developments: training for teachers and administrators, updated student handbooks specifically banning discrimination on the basis of disability, a revised policy on bullying, and services for the student.

One area where PAUSD has continued to struggle is compliance with Title IX, which protects girls and young women from discrimination in sports, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. Reports in the local and national media in April 2013 that female students at Paly had experienced harassment at school connected to off-campus sexual assaults raised serious issues under Title IX. However, it was evident that senior district staff were not well versed on the requirements for prompt investigation and remediation of complaints of sexual harassment.  As a result, the district itself requested and received technical assistance in relation to the Paly case, according to former Superintendent Kevin Skelly. I also asked OCR whether technical assistance could be offered to the district on Title IX.

Since joining the district in August 2014, Superintendent McGee has worked to build a more positive relationship with OCR, even picking up the phone to quickly resolve a complaint directly. However, there are still two open investigations dating from 2013 and 2014, both involving Title IX. These include a review of sexual harassment policy at Paly, and a parent complaint that the district failed to protect a female Gunn student from harassment after an assault. Dr. McGee has said that he wants guidance from the school board on whether and how to attempt to resolve these investigations. I believe that the district should reach out proactively to OCR and express our willingness to work cooperatively to address any issues for the benefit of the students involved, as well as all of our other students.

Unfortunately, I am hampered in making this case on the school board by suggestions that I have a conflict of interest. That is why I have put this question to the FPPC.  When I receive an answer I will share it publicly with the community, and I will of course follow the FPPC’s advice.


Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment

Visit Ken on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Contact: [email protected] or 650-906-4340

Download literature