Palo Alto Weekly
News - July 12, 2013
U.S. agency investigates peer sexual harassment at Paly
In aftermath of student magazine's 'rape culture' story, inquiry focuses on school district's policies and actions
by Chris Kenrick and Terri Lobdell
A federal civil-rights agency is investigating whether Palo Alto High School has complied with legal requirements designed to ensure an "educational environment free of sexual harassment, and whether it responds promptly and effectively to complaints or other notice of sexual harassment."
In a June 3 letter to Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said 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."
Unlike five other recent or active Office for Civil Rights investigations of the district, which were opened in response to individual complaints, this inquiry apparently was initiated by the federal agency and is a broad compliance review not focused on a particular case or student.
Although the notification letter does not mention them specifically, the events reported April 9 in a six-part story in Paly's student magazine, Verde, will almost certainly be a part of the investigation. The articles included anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled, off-campus sexual assaults of Paly students; interviews with victims of rape and other Paly students; discussion of Paly students' attitudes on victim-blaming; and an editorial criticizing the mainstream media's "sympathetic" portrayal of high school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.
In one of the Verde articles, an alleged victim said she felt socially ostracized at school after she told her parents and police what had happened. After talking with the student and her family, staff of the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services who worked at Paly filed a police report on the student's behalf, but she chose not to press charges.
"Everyone was making me feel like just a lying slut who got herself in this situation," the teen told Verde. "Even though I know that's not what happened, that's how people were making me feel."
It is also likely that investigators will look at how the school responded in January when officials learned of sexually explicit gossip and harassment of several students on an anonymous blog called "PA Gossip Girl" and then spread to Facebook. At the time, students notified police and Paly principal Phil Winston, but gossip and peer harassment (including reference to a sexual assault) continued both on and off campus and on social media, according to several students interviewed by the Weekly.
At a May 7 school board meeting and in an email to members of the Board of Education, Stanford Law School Professor Michele Dauber asserted that the Verde articles should have triggered an investigation by the school district as to whether the alleged victims faced a "hostile environment" at Paly due to the assaults and because of the victim-blaming recounted in the articles.
Dauber, who developed Stanford's current sexual-harassment policies and co-founded the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, said she believed the district had failed to meet its legal obligation to look into the matter, which is required under Title IX even if the alleged sexual assaults occurred off campus and even if no complaint is made to the school.
Later in May, Skelly said the district was conducting an inquiry into the matter.
The district is "reviewing what we knew (and) what steps we took to address the concerns" raised by the articles, Skelly told the Weekly May 15. There has been no report on the results of that review, and Skelly declined to comment about it via email this week.
In the June 3 letter from the Office for Civil Rights notifying Skelly of the federal investigation, Regional Director Arthur Zeidman said his agency is "a neutral fact finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the recipient and other sources as appropriate." Opening an investigation in no way implies that the Office for Civil Rights has made a determination with regard to the issue's merits, he said.
The Weekly obtained the letter from the agency, which released it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. School officials had kept the existence of the notification letter secret from the public by excluding it from public copies of communications with school board members, asserting it was a confidential student matter.
In an email Tuesday, July 9, Skelly asked the Weekly not to publish information about the new investigation and implied it focused on a single student and could harm the alleged victim's "progress in her educational program that may come from public discussion."
The district has not taken this position with other Office for Civil Rights complaints (except to redact names and identifying information, of which there were none in this latest letter, since it wasn't based on an individual complaint).
"The District and OCR have been working together to protect the student's privacy and to confirm the district's compliance with Title IX," Skelly said. Nevertheless, the Office for Civil Rights released the letter to the Weekly without redactions.
Neena Chaudhry, an expert on Title IX, said it is common for victims to face a "hostile learning environment" following an alleged sexual assault, at both the high school and college levels.
"The effects are serious; there have been grave injuries to students," said Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.
In conducting an investigation into this sort of situation, Chaudhry said, the Office for Civil Rights probably will look first at what the school knew or should have known, what its policies and procedures were, and who the Title IX coordinator was and what actions were taken. (In Palo Alto, school principals are the designated site coordinators, and Associate Superintendent Charles Young is the district's coordinator.)
Paul Kandell, Paly journalism teacher and Verde's adviser, said Thursday he is "not in a position to know whether the (Title IX) law was followed at the school administrative or district level in any particular case at Paly."
"I am confident that I do not have any unresolved mandatory reporting obligations related to the Verde 'rape culture' story. Any I might have had I resolved promptly and completely," Kandell said in an email to the Weekly. "I appreciate and respect the Title IX law and the intent behind it."
Chaudhry said it is not unusual for the Office for Civil Rights to initiate its own investigations based on information from media reports or elsewhere.
The agency's investigation reflects a "guidance" memo the office issued in 2011 to all school districts reminding them of the need to fully investigate and take action in cases of peer sexual harassment. Recent cases in Saratoga and Steubenville, Ohio, where student victims of sexual assaults were teased and harassed by their peers (the Saratoga victim later died by suicide), have increased concerns over how school officials address on-campus behavior stemming from off-campus activity.
READ MORE ONLINE
The Office for Civil Rights letter to the school district about the Title IX investigation has been posted with the digital version of this story on Palo Alto Online.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick and freelance writer Terri Lobdell can be emailed at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Lobdell is married to Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson.
Posted by Edmund Burke,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 13, 2013 at 8:57 am
In Palo Alto what happened is not that someone said "that's so gay," or "you're a retard" although those things are bad and if a teacher heard that I would hope that he/she would intervene.
What happened at Terman is that over a long period of time a disabled girl was hit, kicked, pushed, punched in the face and relentlessly teased to the point that she experienced mental health problems as a result. The parents consistently reported every incident and begged school officials for help. School officials did not intervene to stop the incidents. They did not do proper investigations, did not follow any procedures at all, and ultimately the child was severely injured as a result.
That is not equivalent to being called "gay," although as I said, I don't consider verbal anti-gay or disability based bullying to be acceptable.
OCR typically responds to complaints. The parents of the disabled girl attempted a long series of efforts to receive help from various school site and district personnel including board members. In every instance they did not receive effective help. In many instances they were simply ignored. Eventually they turned to OCR.
Even after OCR found in their favor, they did not receive appropriate FAPE accommodations. Their child was not receiving an appropriate education; indeed she was not even attending school. At that point they gave the documents to the Weekly. Once the documents were published other families who were experiencing identical or very similar issues began to file complaints because they learned from the Weekly story that perhaps this could be a route that helped their child as well.
Why didn't people complain sooner? I take part of your comment to be that somehow Professor or Ken Dauber must have instigated all of this because Palo Alto has been treated disabled students illegally for a long time so why are they all complaining to the government now?
To that I would respond that something has changed but it is not what you think. What has changed is that Kevin Skelly has a particular philosophy of dealing with special education, which is never going to be successful in a place like Palo Alto. Shortly after arriving here he replaced special ed director Carol Zepecki with Holly Wade (and Amy Drolette, now Brenda Carillo). Unlike Carol who was a problem solver who tried to find a way to give families what they wanted for their child, Holly has taken a very hard line. In neither case were procedures followed correctly because the district didn't really have any due to site based control.
The difference is if you are going to behave lawlessly, but you give people what they hope to have or at least much of what they hope to have, then they won't complain about the lack of procedures. If you are going to hardball everyone as Skelly/Wade do, then the lack of procedures is a fatal flaw in the system, particularly where the system is made up of highly educated parents who know their rights and are not likely to be willing to accept second-class treatment for their disabled students.
The families involved have filed their own complaints, doubtless given hope by the media coverage of the first complaint. OCR is responding to their complaints about their children. OCR is a federal agency subject to federal rules. It is not run like PAUSD where a parent with influence can just get whatever they want from a principal due to their personal relationship or because the parent cooked a few parent appreciation lunches. Do you think that the US Department of Education, one of the biggest federal bureaucracies, subject to oversight, reporting, and statutory governance, just snaps into action because a law school chum picks up the phone, regardless of the merit of complaints or the existence of legal violations?
As to the Compliance Review that is also a hell of the district's own making in 2 ways. First, if you are going to send your teachers and students on a media tour to publicize the existence of a sexual harassment culture at your high school perhaps you should ensure that you have properly followed all procedures and are in full legal compliance before the media tour. If you are looking for someone to blame there, it is not Professor Dauber, it is Michael Milliken, Charles Young and Kevin Skelly. All three of these top officials were aware of the facts reported in the Verde story. The story was circulated by Milliken to his superiors and the board. Yet no one recognized the Title IX implications.
Meanwhile teacher Paul Kandell went on a media blitz with his students advertising how invested Paly was with sexual harassment. Students are harassed on the internet, in the corridors, and on campus to the point that a rape victim was so harassed that she left school. That's illegal, but there it was in black and white and all over the media.
It does not take a lawyer of the caliber of a Chad Graff to conclude that it is unwise for a client who is embroiled in five separate OCR investigations and who has no appropriate sexual harassment policy to embark on a national media tour about how much sexual violence harassment goes on in the district's flagship high school. Was it wise in retrospect for the district to taunt the parent community and OCR in that manner?
And to be accurate, the district had ample advance warning that it might face civil rights law scrutiny for its sexual harassment problem. Both the Weekly in an editorial and Ken Dauber immediately informed the board and district officials about the Title IX ramifications of the story, months before OCR initiated its inquiry. Both were ignored. Professor Dauber also came to a board meeting and explained the matter in great detail and followed that up with a lengthy email urging the board to ensure that the proper investigation was conducted. Far from being the source of the district's problems, Professor Dauber, Ken Dauber, and the Weekly attempted to prevent the current situation by urging the district to proactively take the appropriate steps.
It is difficult to parse responsibility for these events given the secrecy and public silence of our elected officials -- silence and secrecy that is itself legally suspect and also extremely nontransparent. In such a situation all we can know is who was ultimately responsible for these things --
Kevin Skelly, as the CEO has ultimate responsibility for the legal compliance of the district. He failed to ensure legal compliance.
Charles Young, as the district's Title IX officer, was responsible for ensuring that the district's Title IX procedures were correct and also for ensuring that he was properly trained in sexual violence, and also that Title IX was followed in the Paly case. Charles Young does not appear to have conducted these duties in an appropriate manner.
Michael Milliken as the head of secondary education should, when reading the Verde story, have understood the TItle IX implications and met with Principal Phil Winston to ensure that he understood his Title IX obligations, and ensured that Charles was monitoring that situation. He does not appear to have done this.
Phil Winston appears to have been made the fall guy for the district's failure to have proper procedures or train him in them. However without a transparent account of the matter that is impossible to know.
There are also a myriad of questions about the various teachers like Mr. Kandell and counselors in terms of what they knew and when they knew it, whether they were properly trained, or whether there were proper procedures in place. Such questions will be answered in the OCR Compliance Review that is now underway.
Other issues that will be addressed are the remedies that can be put into place at Paly (and hopefully Gunn) to ensure that sexual violence, relationship abuse, dating violence, and cyber sexual harassment are properly addressed by school personnel. There will be new policies and procedures. There will be appropriate training, and there will hopefully be training for students in our secondary schools. There will be a host of other possible school climate remedies designed to ensure that the sexual harassment discrimination that appears based on the Verde story to be rampant will be addressed.
Finally you and other posters have raised the fact that our schools are better than those in high poverty areas. Why doesn't OCR look at Compton or EPA? I take these comments to mean basically that because we have high income, mostly white students with safe neighborhoods and no gangs or drugs we have fewer problems. Why pick on PAUSD? Why not look at these truly troubled communities.
Let me turn that around. A community like PAUSD should be doing a much better job at protecting student civil rights precisely because it has the money, resources, and personnel to get the job done. We have a large district staff, and our principals are not, unlike those areas you mention, dealing with gangs, crime, drugs, and lack of academic achievement and other problems. So it is particularly wrong, particularly infuriating, and particularly flagrant for PAUSD to fail to enforce civil rights law and ensure a discrimination free environment precisely because it could do it if it wanted to. PAUSD's failures can be read as intentional rather than merely overwhelm. PAUSD could be doing this right if it wanted to.
And now that we have the secret emails between Chad and Mitchell we can see that that reading was accurate. PAUSD is engaged in a secret legal strategy to resist federal regulation. Perhaps it should tell DoE that it does not want to be a federal funds recipient any longer and simply have no rules against discrimination at all other than those provided by the US and California Constitutions. I wonder how that would be received politically?
If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.
To post your comment, please click here to Log in
. This topic is only for those who have signed up to participate by providing their email address and establishing a screen name.