The federal Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is currently investigating whether Palo Alto High School responded properly when allegations of student sexual harassment or assault were reported.
OCR attorneys were expected to start interviewing Paly administrators this past week and will likely want to talk with students and staff as well, according to an email sent to Paly staff.
The investigation commenced June 3, shortly after articles were published in Verde, Paly's student magazine, describing how up to nine student victims of sexual assaults had been "harassed verbally and on social media after the assaults" by other students. It was 10 days later that Paly principal Phil Winston submitted his resignation.
In its notification letter to Superintendent Kevin Skelly, the OCR stated that it had received information that Paly "has not provided a prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault." The notice emphasized that the investigation is to gather the facts and is not a determination that any laws or rules were violated.
Neither the district nor the Office for Civil Rights would comment on the investigation, so it is not known if it encompasses any of the allegations about former Paly principal Phil Winston. Associate Superintendent Charles Young told the Weekly that the documents containing information about the allegations regarding Winston had been provided to OCR.
Under Title IX of the federal Civil Rights Act, sexual harassment of students is a prohibited form of sex discrimination. The federal law requires that if a school knows or reasonably should know about possible sexual harassment involving students, it must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation, "even if a student or his or his parent does not want to file a complaint or does not request that the school take any action on the student's behalf."
Other employment laws, federal and state, govern allegations of discrimination (including sexual harassment) against staff.
Sexual harassment is defined in the district's policies (consistent with federal and state law) as including "unwanted verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature" (e.g, sexual jokes or "graphic verbal comments about an individual's body or overly personal conversation") that creates "an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment."
The district has apparently attempted at least twice to get OCR's investigation halted. According to documents provided to the Weekly that are almost entirely redacted, last June, immediately after the investigation was launched, the district wrote a letter with the subject line, "Request for Reconsideration of Opening of Investigation." In September, another letter was sent with the subject line "Request for Closure of Investigation."
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