On Tuesday evening, the Palo Alto school board closed a chapter and opened a new one with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, unanimously approving a resolution agreement in two Title IX investigations and repealing by a 4-1 vote a controversial 2014 resolution that sharply criticized the federal agency.
All board members expressed an eagerness on Tuesday to move forward on both accounts. Melissa Baten Caswell, the only sitting board member who served on the board that unanimously approved the 2014 resolution, hesitated before casting her vote but ultimately supported the repeal "in the interest of moving forward."
President Terry Godfrey, however, cast the sole dissenting vote. She, too, said she wanted to be forward-looking rather than "go back and re-litigate 2014."
The board also unanimously backed a new resolution proposed by Baten Caswell that commits the district to working collaboratively with the Office for Civil Rights, a reflection of the district's current, more positive relationship with the agency. Before adopting, the board made some small changes, including expanding a list of groups protected from discrimination and striking a clause that stated all "authorized action" from the 2014 resolution "has been concluded."
The resolution agreement, the result of yearslong investigations into multiple reports of sexual harassment, misconduct and violence at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, commits the district to corrective actions to address its failure to comply with anti-discrimination law Title IX.
While the Office for Civil Rights has not yet disclosed specific legal violations it found in its investigations, the agency will release a formal letter of findings after the resolution agreement is signed.
By approving the agreement, the district has agreed to address missteps that may have occurred at the time these reports were first made. The district will be required to hire an independent investigator, to be approved by the Office for Civil Rights, to conduct proper Title IX investigations into former Paly Principal Phil Winston's alleged sexual harassment of students, former Paly teacher Kevin Sharp's alleged consensual sexual relationship with a former student and reports of off-campus sexual violence between 2012 and 2014.
The agreement asks the district to provide all investigative reports, underlying documents and interviews related to Paly teacher Ronnie Farrell, who will be sentenced this month for allegedly touching a student inappropriately in a classroom at the end of the last school year, and former Ohlone Elementary School teacher Michael Airo, who was arrested last year for alleged child sex abuse that occurred more than a decade ago.
The district will also be required to create an online system by which it can maintain its own confidential, detailed tracking of complaints and through which students and parents can anonymously report concerns, among other tracking and reporting requirements.
Per the agreement, the Office for Civil Rights will monitor the district for a minimum of three years, or until it is in compliance with Title IX.
At the request of board members, Superintendent Max McGee provided on Tuesday rough cost estimates for some stipulations in the agreement — between $19,000 and $22,000 for staff and teacher training and as much as $60,000 in staff time to manage reporting requirements and related paperwork. He said that the district is simply paying now for what it should have done when the investigations were first conducted.
"Had the investigations been as thorough and detailed as required now, we would have incurred these costs earlier," he said. "This is a cost that, frankly, should have been encumbered ... on the books years ago."
McGee also disagreed with the notion that approving the resolution agreement is in essence signing a "blank check," a criticism voiced by a California Teachers Association attorney who reviewed the agreement on behalf of the teachers union.
Most board members appeared to be unswayed by last-minute objections raised by this attorney, Chris Schumb, at the meeting about the agreement's commitment to update district policies on sexual harassment, discrimination and complaint procedures. Schumb said he was representing the teachers union and at least one other party, presumably an individual teacher who he declined to identify, citing attorney-client privilege.
The board also narrowly approved a last edit to the resolution agreement — to remove references to discipline as a potential outcome of investigations into allegations of employee sexual harassment or misconduct, with the understanding that removing that language doesn't preclude disciplinary action if necessary. Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said the union was concerned not about discipline itself, but if it came as a result of "reopening cases that were already investigated."