Our audit on the implementation of school safety and nondiscrimination laws and programs by local educational agencies (LEAs) and the California Department of Education (Education) revealed the following:
Several high-profile cases in California have brought the topic of bullying to the public's attention, including the suicide of Seth Walsh, a gay student from Tehachapi, California, who took his life after facing years of relentless anti-gay harassment. In response to this and similar cases, the California Legislature and the federal government passed several laws to ensure students equal rights and opportunities in public schools. Despite these legislative attempts to address bullying and harassment, a recent statewide survey of children in California schools showed that more than 28 percent of seventh-grade students reported being harassed at school. Whereas bullying was once limited to the classrooms and the schoolyard, technology has enabled bullies to reach beyond the protective walls of students' homes, as indicated by the 22 percent of ninth-grade students who reported that other students had spread rumors or lies about them over the Internet (via social media, email, and instant messages, for example) at least once over the previous 12-month period. As a result, bullying and harassment continue to be pervasive dangers to the safety of students inside and outside of school.
Under various federal and state laws, public schools have an obligation to provide students equal educational opportunity by combating racism, sexism, and other forms of bias in schools. The California Safe Place to Learn Act (act)—established in 2008 and amended in 2012—reinforced these federal and state protections by requiring the California Department of Education (Education) to assess whether local educational agencies (LEAs)—school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education—have adopted policies in compliance with the law to address this act, among other requirements.
Most LEAs have implemented or are implementing policies and programs to comply with recent changes to state laws regarding discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. During our audit, we visited three LEAs—the Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento City unified school districts—and two school sites at each of these LEAs. Each of the three LEAs we visited has adopted key requirements reinforced under the act and has generally implemented programs and workshops to prevent and address incidents of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. Similarly, 1,116 of the 1,394 LEAs responding to our survey (80 percent) indicated that their policies and procedures already reflected the changes to state law or were updated to implement these changes. Although state law does not expressly require LEAs to provide training in preventing discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying (prevention training) to their staff, many LEAs choose to do so. The majority of the LEAs that responded to our survey, as well as the LEAs we visited, have made various efforts to train their staff. Further, LEAs also use programs and workshops that focus on prevention training.
Despite these programs and policies, the three LEAs we visited did not always maximize their use of readily available data, such as student behavior data, complaint data, and California Healthy Kids Survey data to determine the effectiveness of their efforts to prevent and respond to acts of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. Similarly, 579 of the 1,061 surveyed LEAs (55 percent) that implemented a program or workshop indicated that they did not formally evaluate the effectiveness of the program or workshop after implementation. Moreover, the six school sites we visited generally have not formally evaluated the effectiveness of their programs for the 2012-13 school year. Similarly, only 18 of the 37 surveyed schools sites (49 percent) that implemented a program or workshop indicated that they formally evaluate the effectiveness of the program or workshop after implementation. As a result, it appears that most LEAs and many school sites lack assurance that their efforts are effective.
Moreover, each of the three LEAs we visited had weaknesses at either the district office or school sites in their complaint resolution processes. Each LEA encourages complainants, whenever possible, to address their concerns early and informally at the school site level or through the use of an alternative complaint process, such as a mediator. As a result, the majority of complaints regarding discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying are handled by school staff in this manner, rather than complainants going through a formal complaint resolution process, such as the State's uniform complaint procedures (UCP).1 Using the alternative process, one LEA did not always ensure the complainant's right to an unbiased decision, as it sometimes assigned the responsibility for the investigation to a site administrator who was named as a party to the complaint. In addition, two of the LEAs we visited took longer to investigate complaints than the 60-day time limit established in regulations or the LEAs' policies.
Further, the three LEAs we visited have not adequately communicated their expectations to the school sites regarding the complaint procedures that school sites must follow. As a result, the six school sites we visited did not always adequately document complaints, which limits their ability to track complaint frequency, volume, and outcomes. Specifically, six school sites did not always track complaints filed at the school site level, follow their respective LEA's reporting requirements, or document their follow-up on incidents. As a result, complainants and the accused parties may not always receive the full benefits and protections afforded to them under the LEAs' policies.
In addition, our review found that Education needs to better fulfill its leadership responsibilities under California law in the area of school safety. Since 2008 the act has required Education to ensure LEAs' compliance with state laws related to discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying; however, its Office of Equal Opportunity (EO office) did not begin monitoring LEA compliance with the act until the 2012-13 school year. This four-year void in monitoring primarily occurred because Education was unaware that the EO office had failed to update its program instrument to incorporate the act's requirements. In addition, although California regulations guarantee complainants the right to appeal an LEA's decision regarding a UCP complaint to Education, in 11 of the 18 appeal cases we reviewed, the EO office did not resolve the appeal within the required 60-day time limit. The EO office also does not consistently notify LEAs of an appeal or obtain and review the affected LEAs' investigative files and complaint procedures, as state regulations require. Because of these deficiencies, complainants are not receiving a prompt review of their appeals or the benefit of an independent review of their complaints, which is called for in state regulations.
We also found that, although Education has provided resources to LEAs on its Web site as required by the act, LEAs report a lack of awareness of these resources. Our review confirmed that Education could improve the quality of the resources posted on its Web site by updating them to include those that address cyberbullying and expanding the information aimed at incidents related to protected characteristics.2
Further, although Education has access to statewide data that it could use to evaluate the effectiveness of LEAs' efforts to prevent and respond to discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying, it does not evaluate those data, citing a lack of funding and staffing. As a result of this limitation, we administered two surveys—one statewide to the nearly 2,000 LEAs in California and a more detailed survey to a selection of 40 school sites—to assess how LEAs and school sites are addressing these issues. The survey results are included in appendixes A and B and are referred to throughout our report.
Education could also provide more leadership in best practices for school safety. Representatives that we interviewed from eight national and state organizations with experience researching violence prevention and school safety have identified practices that other states use to help prevent and address incidents of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. These practices include school climate activities, restorative justice and peer mediation, and specific training provided to teachers and school site staff. In addition, a 2011 U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DOE) report identified key components of anti-bullying legislation that states can implement. We found that California laws differ from the U.S. DOE examples in several instances; therefore, the State could benefit from including these missing components in law.
To ensure that they are effectively preventing and addressing incidents of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying in their schools, the Fresno, Los Angeles, and Sacramento City unified school districts, at both the LEA and school site level, should evaluate the effectiveness of their programs and follow state regulations and their own procedures for addressing complaints.
To provide stronger leadership with respect to school safety and nondiscrimination laws, Education, with direction from the superintendent of public instruction, should do the following:
The Legislature should consider amending state law to ensure that it aligns with the key components the U.S. DOE has identified related to school safety.
The three LEAs we reviewed generally agreed with our findings and conclusions, and indicated they will take actions to implement our recommendations. Although Education stated it will take corrective action on our recommendations, it believed that our report did not fully recognize its long-standing staffing and budgetary challenges.
1 State regulations require LEAs to adopt a UCP process for investigation and resolving discrimination complaints.
2 Protected characteristics under state law include the following: disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.