Breaking: Investigation to begin as JLS incident sparks concern

Anna Feng and Christopher Choi

Palo Alto High School math teacher Daniel Nguyen speaks during the Palo Alto Unified School District board meeting open forum Tuesday night. In response to recent incidents in the district, including one that Nguyen said caused a teacher an “unimaginable, catastrophic loss,” district staff spoke out in favor of an upgraded, standardized protocol in handling student discipline.

In light of a recent incident at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School, Palo Alto Unified School District staff are calling for upgraded response protocols for student discipline concerns.

Palo Alto High School teacher Daniel Nguyen, who spoke out during Tuesday night’s board meeting, said the district should reaffirm its stance on violent incidents at school. 

“It’s unfortunate it took a teacher suffering an unimaginable, catastrophic, loss to get the district’s attention about staff and student safety,” Nguyen said. “But now that we have your attention, the district must unequivocally declare it has zero tolerance for violence, by committing to past policies that remove anyone who attacks a staff member or student. That is a promise worth making. The community is watching and so are we.” 

Superintendent Don Austin said at the meeting that the district cannot comment on any ongoing cases but that a third-party investigation would begin around June 9. 

“The intent of the third party is to look at every part of the system, not to find fault and blame, but to make us better,” Austin said. “While transparency is important, we must also respect the privacy of those involved including the staff and students.”

According to Austin, further speculation on the JLS situation should be kept on hold until the third-party investigation has run its course. 

“There might be some things that come out of the third-party investigation that are things that none of us had considered,” Austin said.

Austin said the district recently added information on staff evaluations to include handling of student discipline and has also been working with the Palo Alto Educators Association and the Elementary Behavior Supports Ad Hoc Committee to help district staff better manage student behavioral concerns.

“Every single site administrator in our entire district received the same piece in their evaluation now, which is about a page long, dealing with nothing except the topic of discipline with additional caveats about steps to take if special education is a factor,” Austin said. “While some things are covered in behavior plans, behavior expectations need to be the same for everyone, meaning that a behavior that results in a physical contact is not appropriate.” 

According to Austin, the evaluations are a part of PAUSD’s ongoing effort to aid students with learning disabilities. 

“The intersection of these different disabilities sometimes being a factor in behaviors – and at what point do we work through those and at what point does that create an unsafe environment for the student themselves, for the staff in the room, for other students – those are the things we’re tackling,” Austin said.

Over 30 individuals spoke out during yesterday’s open forum, including students, staff and community members. The topics of discussion included the JLS incident, the multivariable calculus class, the relocation of “severe-moderate” special education students at Ohlone Elementary School, and concerns over the effect of decreasing enrollment on world language courses. 

Nearly a month after police arrested a Paly student after a threatening note appeared on the door of a social studies classroom, Austin said the mental health and wellness of district staff and students continues to remain a critical concern. 

“Before we go any further, I want to acknowledge the impact these incidents have had on our staff and assure you that the well-being of our staff is a top priority,” Austin said. 

Another speaker during open forum, a member of the Choice Program Ad Hoc Committee, said teachers were advised to push a panic button and evacuate the situation in the case of a physical altercation.

“I’m concerned about the district’s handling of violence on campus. PAUSD teachers have been advised not to intervene in fights,” the speaker said. “I’m not demanding teachers intervene. There are times when teachers are willing and able to do so, and they should not have to worry about being a scapegoat if something goes wrong, or fear of speaking out. Teachers should not be forced to choose between saving a child and saving their job.”