News

Editorial: A tortuous school inquiry

Many failures and missteps make a sad mess of sexual-harassment investigation

Palo Alto school district officials had the perfect opportunity last fall to demonstrate they had learned from their past mistakes and, after trainings mandated by its 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, were well-prepared for the next, inevitable complaint involving sexual harassment or discrimination.

Last September, the concerned parents of a recently graduated 18-year old Palo Alto High School student reported that their daughter and one of her teachers had commenced a sexual relationship right after graduation, and they wanted the school to be aware and take steps to prevent it from happening in the future to anyone else.

It was an especially important time for the district to respond carefully because the district was, and still is, under investigation by the OCR to determine if it responded appropriately to previous incidents at both Paly and Gunn involving potential sexual harassment.

It was also a great chance for then-new Superintendent Max McGee to model how such issues would be handled differently under his administration, with strict adherence to the district's policies, especially the legally mandated and recently updated Uniform Complaint Procedures (UCP), which spell out exactly how reports of possible sexual harassment should be investigated.

Instead, as this week's story in the Weekly outlines, the district not only failed to follow those policies but over the course of a year involved two of its law firms in uncoordinated and siloed work that ultimately led them to different legal conclusions and left the district with bills in excess of $50,000.

As soon as the parents met with Paly Principal Kim Diorio and shared their information, district policies (and both state and federal law) required that a UCP investigation be conducted and completed within 60 days. Among other requirements, the investigator is to be impartial, conduct interviews and gather evidence, make a determination on the credibility of witnesses, make findings of fact and arrive at a conclusion as to what steps need to be taken to correct any problems with the school's response or school climate through trainings or new policies. A written report must be shared with the complainant.

Instead of following these steps, the school district decided to treat the issue as a personnel matter and turned it over to the human resources department to investigate. After interviewing the parents and the teacher, but not the girl, no report was written and the matter was eventually dropped because of conflicting witness statements.

Then five months later, around the time the former boyfriend of the girl came forward and challenged the adequacy of the investigation that had been done, the district decided to ask the same law firm that is defending the district in the OCR cases to conduct a UCP/Title IX investigation into the allegations and whether the district had responded properly.

The Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost firm concluded that it was more likely than not that no sexual relationship or harassment occurred between the teacher and student and that the district had fully complied with its responsibilities under the law.

Meanwhile the district's other primary law firm, Lozano Smith, which was not made aware of the Fagen Friedman investigation until after it was completed, came to the opposite conclusion -- that it was more likely than not that the allegations were true and that teacher had "exploited" his position of power "to establish the basis for a sexual/romantic relationship with a former student."

Within a six-week period last summer, the teacher was informed by one district law firm that he had been exonerated and by another law firm that he had engaged in unprofessional conduct and could be terminated if the behavior recurs, both firms using the same standard of proof called "preponderance of the evidence."

It is especially disturbing that the Fagen report criticized Paly Principal Diorio for urging her superiors to place the teacher on paid administrative leave during the initial investigation, calling leave a "very serious consequence" that was "ultimately not warranted." In fact, Diorio may be the only district employee who showed the appropriate concern and correctly advocated for an independent investigation.

Sadly, the district has shown it still does not have its house in order on how to respond to serious complaints in spite of extensive trainings of teachers and administrators. If nothing else, this latest mess clearly demonstrates why the district badly needs a high quality in-house general counsel to quarterback compliance matters and manage the work of outside lawyers.

We hope McGee and the Board of Education will move quickly to fill this position and insist that all harassment or discrimination complaints be immediately turned over to that person for proper handling under district policies.

Students, parents, teachers and the public all deserve better.

Related content:

Convoluted sexual-harassment case against Paly teacher lingers on, more than a year later

Timeline of the investigation

Responding to sexual harassment: What the law says

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Comments

18 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 9, 2015 at 1:48 am

As a parent of two high schoolers, I'm appalled by the district administrators' continued practice of hiding inappropriate conduct of teachers (in this case and the previous Paly administrator mentioned) at the expense of students' safety and well-being. McGee still insists this is a "personnel" matter and misrepresents the response of the district, stating legal investigation was pursued, but failing to mention it took over half a year after the initial complaint and only after Sean had escalated the matter to the school board (see post of email:
Web Link). One would think that with the current OCR investigation and all the trainings, the superintendent and other school administrators would do better. McGee and others: the best PR is to do what's right, not try to keep wordsmithing--own up to your failures so that you can fix these problems.


15 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 9, 2015 at 1:59 am

McGee did not just misrepresent--he asserts no prior allegations, which is false (as evidenced by documentation and a police investigation in 2007, reported by the Weekly). Is this an outright lie or ignorance? Neither should be tolerated.


38 people like this
Posted by What's an adult to do?
a resident of Stanford
on Oct 9, 2015 at 6:51 am

None of us have a single detail about this incident/series of incidents, but there is at least one key sentence in this editorial that stands out.

"Last September, the concerned parents of a recently graduated 18-year old Palo Alto High School student reported that their daughter and one of her teachers had commenced a sexual relationship right after graduation, and they wanted the school to be aware and take steps to prevent it from happening in the future to anyone else."

Here's the hard part: if she was 18 at the time, and had graduated from school, SHE IS AN ADULT. That means SHE gets to decide what to do with her life and with whom to engage in relationships, and as hard as it is to accept, the simple hard fact is that the school, the parents, the law firm, and whatever pantheon of deities you or I might pay homage to have absolutely NOTHING to say about it. If you are still trying to control what your adult child does, that is YOUR problem, not the school's problem. The school has ZERO control over the behavior of an adult alum, and further, the school has ZERO say over what relationships an adult teacher has with other consenting adults. It might be time for everyone to grow up and be an adult.

Absent more detail, that is ALL anyone can conclude.

I would like to see the paper source this information with more actual documentation; hopefully that will be forthcoming.


3 people like this
Posted by MeatFarm
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:11 am

[Post removed.]


11 people like this
Posted by Skelly is laughing
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:12 am

[Post removed.]


19 people like this
Posted by Gunn mom of 2
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:16 am

The question is whether the teacher groomed the student for a sexual relationship while she was in school. According to the story the district found that happened. My question is why he was in the classroom for a whole year after the allegation, even though the principal wanted him out, and why he isn't fired? How could McGee decide that he used his position to set up a student for sex and still leave him in the classroom?


14 people like this
Posted by wondering
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:28 am

Weekly, thanks for sharing this story.


I am not defending the teacher's actions if true, but wondering ....


1. Who brought the complaint? The young woman's ex-boyfriend?

You do not mention whether the young woman was upset nor why she wasn't interviewed. Did she refuse to cooperate?


2. Why is this a case for the OCR? (Weekly: "commenced a sexual relationship RIGHT AFTER graduation.")

OCR's work ensures that sexual harassment doesn't get in the way of a student's education at the school. (OCR Dear Colleague letter: "The sexual harassment of students... interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination [and] creates a hostile environment if the conduct is sufficiently serious that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program") Web Link

Did the teacher do something inappropriate WHILE the young woman was a student?



3. Why is the UCP called for? (Weekly: "district policies (and both state and federal law) required that a UCP investigation be conducted and completed within 60 days.")

The district's sexual harassment policies say that "complaints regarding sexual harassment OF STUDENTS are immediately investigated in accordance with the Uniform Complaint Procedures."

Again, you report that she wasn't a PAUSD student when this occurred.

Web Link


4. Why is the "preponderance of evidence standard" (51% certainty) the standard called for too?

"Preponderance of evidence" is not mentioned in the board policies.

The OCR prefers it but that is a suggestion, not a requirement. www.youtube.com/watch?t=3&v=dIiXuv-Oirw (US Department of Education Assistant Secretary Amy McIntosh: "guidance that my department issues does not have the force of law [and] is not binding")


5. How did the reporter obtain information protected by attorney client privilege? (Weekly: "over the course of a year involved two of its law firms in uncoordinated and siloed work that ultimately led them to different legal conclusions")

Is there a whistleblower in the district office?


6. [Portion removed.] why someone on the board's policy review committee - Heidi Emberling or Ken Dauber - called for a new board policy on former student and PAUSD teacher relationships last spring? Web Link (Draft BP 4119.21 "suggested by a member of the BPRC" - "This policy prohibits all romantic and sexual relationships with any individual, regardless of whether the individual consents, while the individual is a student of the district and for a period of four years after graduation from high school")

Web Link


17 people like this
Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:31 am

If you read the whole article, you will see that Sharp denied having a sexual relationship with the student and there is no evidence other than hearsay that a sexual relationship occurred. The student in question, Lauren, refused to confirm or deny a sexual relationship with Sharp when questioned by investigators. [Portion removed due to inaccurate statement.]

If they did begin a sexual relationship one week after graduation, that is indeed cause for concern and I think most people would agree that would be unethical behavior on the part of Sharp.

But we don't know that happened and without further evidence, I think we should give Sharp the benefit of the doubt. It's sad, but people do get falsely accused and I would hate to ruin a man's reputation and career based on hearsay.


3 people like this
Posted by parent2
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:46 am

parent2 is a registered user.

[Post removed.]



17 people like this
Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 9, 2015 at 4:08 pm

PalyDad is a registered user.

Teachers who engage in grooming students for sex should be reported to the California State Teacher Credentialing Commission. His story does not address whether sharp is being reported. is he? [Portion removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Paly Alum is a registered user.

Paly Social Studies teacher, Mr. Shreve, molested male students up in the school tower for decades and only served one year in prison in 1985:Web Link


1 person likes this
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 9, 2015 at 9:07 pm

Paly Alum is a registered user.

Former Paly teacher, Shreve, registered as sex offender: Web Link


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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