In a much-anticipated conclusion to a federal investigation into how the Palo Alto school district has responded to cases of sexual harassment at its two high schools, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has submitted to the district a draft agreement that outlines specific steps the district will be obligated to take to address its failure to comply with federal law.
Office for Civil Rights (OCR) attorneys presented the agency's legal findings in meetings last week and on Monday to Superintendent Max McGee, Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade and the district's lawyers, informing them verbally of their findings and providing in writing a draft resolution agreement.
The findings, which will detail how the district mishandled several cases of alleged sexual harassment and thereby violated anti-discrimination law Title IX, will only be released after the district has signed the resolution agreement.
The agreement is subject to negotiation and could change, but the agency's findings are not, according to the agency's procedures.
The 11-page document reveals that the Office for Civil Rights expanded the investigation, launched by incidents that led to two separate cases, to encompass multiple allegations of sexual harassment, teacher grooming and sexual violence involving students, teachers and administrators over the course of the last three years.
The first case was initiated by the Office for Civil Rights itself in June 2013 in response to Palo Alto High School student publication Verde Magazine's investigation into "rape culture" at the school. The story detailed anonymous accounts of off-campus sexual assaults and students' attitudes around rape and victim blaming.
The next year, a Gunn High School family filed a complaint alleging that the school district violated Title IX in its handling of peer sexual harassment and violence in which their daughter, a Gunn student, was assaulted and victimized by her former boyfriend, also a Gunn student.
Until the legal findings are released, the details of how the district failed to properly comply with the law can only be gleaned from the extensive remedial actions the federal agency is proposing in its draft agreement.
It directs the district to hire an independent investigator, to be approved by the Office for Civil Rights, to conduct proper Title IX investigations into the way the district responded to allegations that former Paly principal Phil Winston sexually harassed students, allegations that then Paly teacher Kevin Sharp had an inappropriate consensual sexual relationship with a student and reports of off-campus sexual violence in 2012-13 and another in 2014.
In effect, the agency is asking Palo Alto Unified to conduct the investigations the district was obligated to carry out at the time it learned of the various incidents and allegations but didn't. Among other details, the investigations are to determine whether any school employees should be disciplined for "enabling or failing to report the behavior."
The district is also being directed to prepare written notices of the outcomes of the investigations and to send them, after the agency's review, to the complainants and respondents (those who were accused).
The agreement asks the district to provide all investigative reports, underlying documents and interviews related to Paly teacher Ronnie Farrell, who was arrested this summer for allegedly touching a student in appropriately in a classroom at the end of the last school year, and former Ohlone Elementary School teacher Michael Airo, who was arrested in January for alleged child sex abuse that occurred more than a decade ago.
What the resolution agreement says
While the Office for Civil Rights' findings have yet to be released, the resolution agreement indicates the district has erred in its policies, training, reporting of and response to sexual harassment and discrimination.
The agreement asks for revision of district policies on non-discrimination and harassment, sexual harassment and the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) to ensure compliance with Title IX. Its sexual harassment policy should explicitly define grooming, behavior defined by the Office for Civil Rights as "a desensitization strategy common in adult educator sexual misconduct," an issue that came up in the Sharp case, the agreement states. The district's policies also conflict with each other in some places and "do not support each other," Wade said the federal agency informed them at last week's meeting.
The federal investigators also identified tracking reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence as an area of concern, asking the district to create an online system where it can maintain its own confidential, detailed tracking of complaints and where students and parents can anonymously report concerns.
The agreement also suggests a need for more transparency, proposing that the district's Title IX coordinator report annually to the superintendent and Board of Education the information collected by these systems.
Paly and Gunn in particular will likely also see increased training and new school-climate surveys for both students and parents to assess the extent to which students witness or experience sexual harassment or violence and the "effectiveness of school harassment response and prevention efforts," the agreement states.
McGee told the Weekly that the district's top priorities will be to conform its policies to federal law, to make sure all investigations are completed within their required timeframes with prompt response to all parties involved and to regularly report the number of complaints to the board and public.
He declined to state whether there is anything in the draft agreement that the district will challenge but did say that there "may be some things to discuss with them" about the feasibility of conducting new investigations into allegations that stretch several years back.
McGee said he will not be recommending the district object to the Office for Civil Rights' proposed three-year monitoring period, which could involve requests for more information, site visits and interviews. The draft resolution also proposes strict reporting requirements to ensure the district is complying with the agreement.
"Looking at the big picture, we intend to be cooperative," he said.
He declined to give specifics about the Office for Civil Rights' findings since they were shared verbally, he said, rather than in writing. The district will have the option to appeal the findings within 60 days if it believes they are incomplete, incorrect and/or the appropriate legal standard was not applied, according to the agency's case-processing manual.
"This is important for us to listen to what they say, to work through this resolution agreement and do better," McGee said in a video interview on the Palo Alto Weekly's "Behind the Headlines" webcast last Friday.
He added that he is committed to being transparent about the district's dealings with Office for Civil Rights.
"I think it's important to put it out in the public as soon as possible," he said.
The complainant in the Gunn case, whose name is being withheld by the Weekly to protect the family from further public exposure, told the Weekly her family is "relieved" that the investigation has finally come to an end, with confirmation that "serious mistakes were indeed made in our case."
"The intent of our OCR filing was to bring objective outside review to PAUSD policies and practices which we believed were inadequate," she said. "We did not expect it would have any impact on our particular case due to the considerable length of these investigations, but we were concerned about the potential for future mishandled cases.
"We hope the district will now move forward collaboratively with the OCR in changing processes, so that future victims will be protected," she said.
The district has 90 days from Dec. 7 to respond to the resolution agreement. The district's new law firm, Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo — the replacement for Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost, which represented the district in past Office for Civil Rights cases — is working with staff on a response, McGee.
The two Office for Civil Rights investigations began under the watch of former superintendent Kevin Skelly, who left the district in June 2014. Skelly was widely criticized for failing to promptly disclose -- even to the school board -- a December 2012 resolution agreement and findings from the Office for Civil Rights that the district's mishandling of a Terman middle school bullying case had violated the civil rights of a disabled student.
McGee arrived in August 2014, and the next month the district received a complaint about Sharp from the parents of a student. No Title IX investigation was initiated by the district until the following year, and then the district's two law firms came to opposite conclusions about the case. The district and Sharp entered into a settlement resulting in his resignation last November and a payment to him of $150,000, the same amount paid in a settlement with Winston in exchange for his resignation in June 2015.
In October 2015 -- at the urging of trustee Ken Dauber -- the school board and McGee sought to take advantage of a provision in the federal agency's guidelines allowing the negotiation of an early resolution of the Paly and Gunn cases, thus avoiding the issuance of a letter of findings that would identify where a district or school is legally out of compliance.
The agency, however, last December informed McGee the investigations were too far along to pursue early resolution, and McGee announced that the district could expect both findings and a resoution agreement in the two cases.
The board will discuss the draft agreement at its first meeting of the new year, on Tuesday, Jan. 10.
View the full resolution agreement here.