OCR findings: A repeated failure to properly investigate | News | Palo Alto Online |


OCR findings: A repeated failure to properly investigate

Federal agency details school district's improper handling of sexual harassment complaints, incidents over three-year period

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A formal letter of findings from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released on Thursday details how the Palo Alto school district repeatedly failed to "promptly and equitably" respond to and investigate reports of sexual harassment and assault on and off its campuses -- and thus violated federal anti-discrimination law Title IX.

As is standard agency procedure, the Office for Civil Rights released the findings about a week after the school board unanimously approved a resolution agreement that commits the district to a range of efforts it will take to address these violations.

The findings paint a detailed if clinical picture of the school district's failure to not only comply with federal law, but to follow its own policies and procedures in eight separate sexual harassment, assault and misconduct cases involving students, teachers, staff and an administrator since 2013.

In numerous cases, the district failed to conduct any Title IX investigation after receiving reports of sexual harassment and violence, including when it became aware of allegations that a Palo Alto High School student had been sexually assaulted off campus and that former Paly principal Phil Winston had sexually harassed students and staff. The resolution agreement directs the district to address these and other missteps by hiring an outside investigator, to be approved by the Office for Civil Rights, to conduct proper investigations into the district's handling of several cases.

Other violations that were common across cases include: failing to to promptly investigate reports of incidents, to provide notice of the outcome of an investigation to the affected parties and to assess whether or not allegations of sexual harassment or violence caused a hostile educational environment for students at school, the Office for Civil Rights found.

The school district's former Title IX coordinator, Associate Superintendent Charles Young, also failed to "discharge his responsibilities" in the role — including not reviewing both oral and written Title IX complaints made at school sites nor scrutinizing them to identify "patterns or systemic problems" — which violated Title IX, the Office for Civil Rights determined. (Young left the district in 2015 to become superintendent of the Benicia Unified School District; the district's chief student services officer, Holly Wade, now serves as Title IX coordinator.)

The federal agency also found the school district's own policies to be in violation of Title IX. The letter of findings describes numerous instances in which the district's policies on sexual harassment, discrimination and complaints regarding employees were inconsistent, non-compliant or not followed. The school district has already started reviewing and updating its policies in these areas and is required to do so as part of the resolution agreement.

Superintendent Max McGee told the Weekly on Sunday that the district "want(s) to ensure that every student is safe and feels safe."

The district is "eager," he added, to launch proper investigations into the cases required by the Office for Civil Rights and will select an independent firm to do so in the next few weeks.

McGee said he was not surprised by any of the findings, in contrast with some community members who worried that signing the resolution agreement would mean getting "blindsided with findings."

"We weren't," he said.

The Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation in Palo Alto in June 2013 in response to Palo Alto High School student publication Verde Magazine's investigation into "rape culture" at the school. Stories included accounts of off-campus sexual assault and at least one student who said she was harassed by other students at school as a result. The agency determined the district violated Title IX when it failed to "take immediate and appropriate steps" to investigate the sexual assault itself as well as the peer harassment.

The federal agency opened another investigation in March 2014 in response to a parent's allegations that the district mishandled allegations of dating violence and stalking at Gunn High School. The district violated Title IX by failing to take immediate interim measures to protect the victim in this case, the findings state, and to "assess and address the hostile environment" the student faced at school as a result of the harassment. As in many other cases, district officials did not provide her family with a notice of the outcome of their investigation.

Gunn administrators also "did not understand" the district's obligation to respond to off-campus sexual harassment and to consider the "full scope" of the impact of that harassment at school, OCR said. (Training for employees and staff, particularly at Gunn and Paly, is another stipulation of the resolution agreement.)

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 concluded and that the OCR has confirmed that serious mistakes were indeed made in our case."

She is working with district staff on suggested policy revisions, which the Board of Education's policy review committee will be tasked with over the next weeks and months.

"We are glad that the new board is moving forward in a more collaborative way with the OCR, and we are more hopeful that future victims will be protected," she said.

The scope of the federal investigation expanded over the years as new allegations arose. In total, the Office for Civil Rights conducted four site visits in Palo Alto and interviewed about 55 school and district staff, including former Superintendent Kevin Skelly, current Superintendent Max McGee, Charles Young, Gunn's and Paly's current principals, assistant principals, teachers, staff, counselors, teachers and student club advisors, according to the letter. The agency also interviewed the student and parent in the Gunn case.

The Office for Civil Rights identified flaws in the district's handling of the allegations about Winston, as well as those of an inappropriate consensual teacher-student relationship involving Paly English teacher Kevin Sharp, allegations that former Paly teacher Ronnie Farrell inappropriately touched a student in a classroom at the end of the last school year and that former Ohlone Elementary School teacher Michael Airo sexually abused a minor more than a decade ago, as well as reports of off-campus sexual violence.

In the Winston case, the school district failed to "determine whether the alleged conduct constituted sexual harassment that created a hostile environment for the affected students, staff, and the broader school community, take steps to eliminate any hostile environment that may have been created, and prevent the harassment from recurring," the letter states.

OCR also found that Paly Principal Kim Diorio, then assistant principal, was not prompt enough in reporting allegations about Winston, then her supervisor, that she received from numerous staff over the course of three years. Diorio declined to comment on the findings, stating "wish I could talk, but I can't on this issue" referring the inquiry to the the district's communications officer.

The Office for Civil Rights also expressed "concern" that the district delayed its Title IX investigations into the allegations regarding Sharp, Farrell and Airo. The agency said it will review the outcomes of investigations into Farrell and Airo as part of its monitoring of the school district over the next three years.

McGee said the delays were due to relying on internal staff to conduct these investigations. The district has started using an outside law firm focused on workplace investigations, the Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, to do this work, McGee said.

The letter of findings also describes allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a classified Gunn employee and a 17-year-old student, reported to the district in December 2015. A "prompt," outside investigation determined they were not in a romantic relationship, the letter states. The agency halted its own investigation of this case when the district expressed an interest last year in entering into a voluntary resolution agreement.

The Office for Civil Rights also reviewed three years of sexual-harassment reports from Paly and Gunn and found that while "generally" the schools investigated and took some action in response, the majority of oral reports didn't include whether interim measures were put in place nor if a notice of outcome was provided to the affected students. The district told the Office for Civil Rights that when it did provide interim measures, such as counseling, it "generally did not assess" whether the measures were effective.

Examples of reported sexual harassment included online and in-person student harassment, according to the Office for Civil Rights. In one case, a male student repeatedly harassed the same female student despite warnings, two suspensions, a meeting with his parents and a notification to the Palo Alto Police Department.

The agency also found the district was not following its own policy requirement to record all reported cases of sexual harassment in order to "monitor, address and prevent repetitive harassing behavior," the letter states. A May 2013 report that about 100 streaking incidents at Paly had created a hostile environment at the school and the alleged sexual assault of a Paly student were not recorded as required by policy, according to the Office for Civil Rights.

Read the full letter of findings here.


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9 people like this
Posted by EMPOWERU
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 13, 2017 at 5:33 pm

As a teen sexual assault activist, I know firsthand that it is so important for schools, families, survivors, and other organizations that serve K-12 students to work together. Until now there was no comprehensive resource to educate them on sexual harassment and assault facts and Title IX rights. The FREE SSAIS video "Sexual Harassment: Not In Our School!" features expert instruction and real-life scenarios that are very helpful. That's why I'm bringing the video to all of the schools in my county. I encourage everyone to watch the video at www.ssais.org/video and share it with everyone you know.

14 people like this
Posted by Do the Right Thing, Max, by everyone
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 13, 2017 at 6:34 pm

"...the Palo Alto school district repeatedly failed to "promptly and equitably" respond to and investigate reports of ..." [fill in the blank]. It's not just sexual harrassment. And it's not just Charles Young.

I'm glad for this, but I hope McGee realizes the systemic problem, and that some of us, per their wishes have held off on making formal complaints hoping that when McGee settled in, he would stop it with the ignoring people hoping they would just go away if the threat of retaliation were just held out enough.

I complained directly to McGee that a certain employee had violated my child's rights in a serious way, had retaliated against our family for complaining in the past and I could provide solid evidence if he wanted, and created a hostile environment among teachers and staff that poisoned the waters for our child in school. I said it was bad enough, I wished I could get a restraining order to keep that person more than a thousand feet away from our child and never have anything to do with that person ever again (this us not a sexual harrassment issue, it's a health and safety one), Yet McGee's response was only that if we complained, the district would respond and did we really want that, then to put that same person in charge of important educational decisions and 504 for that child.

The same employee was part of flaunting records laws so that we were never able to get records the law requires the district to provide. Clearly, McGee and company still believe they only have to do what they are forced to do, and I cannot believe, based on my ongoing experience, that they are truly interested in changing for the benefit of our students.

Will the independent monitor be interested in 504 cases that fit the pettern to a tee, demonstrating a complete flaunting of the intent if this outside of these cases, or just will they be monitoring Title ID only? (I am still more interested in working things out personally and not through OCR, but despite all claims to the contrary, people in this district office push the misbehavior and flaunting if the rules as far and hard as they can until someone forces them to stop it, so I'm not holding my breath for a new paradigm of behavior.)

6 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 14, 2017 at 12:04 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.

This was expected. Why did I know this? BECAUSE MY PARENT WAS AN ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR THAT DEALT WITH THE SAME ISSUES IN THE SJUSD!!! I warned you and told you to WORK WITH THE COUNTY OMBUDSMAN THAT HANDLES THESE ISSUES!!!! Now we will see a bunch of finger pointing because you didn't deal with the Ombudsman who deals with both the school district AND other FEDERAL Agencies. Instead, PAUSD buried their collective heads in the sand, not knowing someone was getting ready to kick their collective butts!
I've asked this person multiple times to take over and clear up this mess; HELL NO was the response. Instead, I have informed the PAO in comment on what was done for the SJUSD....like how to use the County Ombudsman to keep in touch to make sure all Federal Guidelines ( including the requirements for " Special Ed " students { My parent came up through the ranks, starting with " Special Ed " teaching AND PROPER TRAINING!!!} ) I tried to offer the way out of this OCR mess and was ignored, although I collected many " thumbs up " for my postings.
I suggest PAUSD make tracks to the Santa Clara County Ombudsman's Office; On the way there, it would be advised to drop the usual PAUSD arrogance and ASK how should the District be able to maintain compliance and what should be done bring the District back to compliance? I know that Special Ed teachers themselves are untrained and may not be suitable for the job ( by observing what has been done as I watch this fiasco unfold ).
Some VERY HARD decisions and changes are in order to keep " Special Ed " maintaining Federal Compliance. These other problems have to be dealt with. Skelly just made them worse. This toxic environment continues to be bad for the administration, the teachers and the students do NOT get the education they are entitled to.
If I were made Administrator I would " fire " everyone and have all subordinates hand me their resumes AND get a personal interview. People not trained in their specialties might not make the cut. Hey, that is working for OUR President....

11 people like this
Posted by Do the Right Thing, Max, by everyone
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2017 at 8:43 am

Have you ever been in an organization where there was an employee who created drama and chaos but themselves always looked cool as a cucumber and came out smelling like a rose, were favored by high ups, all while the organization itself imploded and floundered unnecessarily and leadership and others took blame over and over and no one could figure out what was going on? This is what I have suspected here for many years.

Whether anyone thinks that or not, the only way for leaders to protect themselves and the organization from such pernicious behavior is to ensure really high standards ethics, honesty, and accountability. Make no place for backbiting. Remember that old wounds can fester if not addressed. Listen to all sides carefully, care about truth and trustworthiness. Otherwise, history will repeat itself.

6 people like this
Posted by retired guy who follows the schools
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 14, 2017 at 9:26 pm


"Superintendent Max McGee told the Weekly on Sunday that the district 'want(s) to ensure that every student is safe and feels safe.'"

I'm told a knife was recently found in a student locker at one of our city's middle schools.

I'm told that the student with the knife had posed with it for photos on the Internet--images that included other weapons--and that the student had verbally threatened at least one other student on campus.

I'm told that the student is attending school now, wearing an ankle tracking device and shadowed by an observing adult. I'm told that, because these things are visible, the identity of the student is known to a great number of the students (who have perhaps passed the information on to their parents; I don't know).

I'm told that administrators have not officially informed the school's parents about these events.

I'm worried both for the privacy and the psychological safety of the student who brought the knife to school, posted the photos, and did the bullying[ and I'm also worried for the psychological and physical safety of all students at the school.

I'm particularly low in confidence about this situation because, only a few years ago at Gunn, when a student had threatened to bring a firearm to school, security guards were posted on campus but the teachers were lied to--told that the guards were there to protect against out-of-control senior pranks. I wrote to Mr. Skelly for clarification but he refused to give me any.

Perhaps our school community is overdue for a frank discussion about balancing the privacy needs of individual (though perhaps dangerous) students with the safety needs of other students. How do we want our administrators to handle such situations?

Again: "Superintendent Max McGee told the Weekly on Sunday that the district 'want(s) to ensure that every student is safe and feels safe.'"

14 people like this
Posted by Bystanders,All
a resident of Community Center
on Mar 15, 2017 at 8:08 am

The school has a long track record of bystanders and bullies. That is staff.

Staff bully kids on homework, performance, disabilities, sexual harassment; and staff are bystanders letting it happen.

This system is designed to encourage bullies and bystanders. I brought this up after our own kids were bullied and mistreated by staff. And the surest indicator of systemic problems: retaliation.

You can talk to principals, board members, Skelly, Max. None of them did a damn thing. They have full awareness, and are responsibility for creating this prison yard environment. And have failed to fix it.

It is repulsive how are children are treated; and doubly so the fact that we pay taxes to people who built this system that mistreats our children.

How did it get to this state? Full and complete abdication of oversight by the board. The site-based model is an unwritten policy to abdicate responsibility and oversight. It encourages bad actors, and encourages coverups and bystanders to do nothing. It encourages the district to push problems (hide) back to the sites where retaliation is used on anyone who raises the issue.

PAUSD is a high performing prison yard with no moral compass.

And it was designed that way.

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2017 at 3:34 pm

If you don't want the answers, don't ask the questions.

2 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 15, 2017 at 6:05 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

@"Do the Right Thing, Max, by everyone?"
I'm trying to underscore that the ultimate losers are the parents and children are the ones who suffer when their is such a toxic BUSINESS environment.
I stand by my statement if I were made boss.
To answer the question: Several bosses I've had were drama queens that got in the way of creative problem solving. After I left, each company filed CTR 7 Bankruptcy in 6 months.

Unfortunately, the PAUSD can only file CIVIL Actions because CRIMINAL CASES HAVE not been filed. They SHOULD BE FILED but the PAUSD BOARD CHOSE NOT TO ACT! I think some changes are needed at the board level on down to the Special Ed teachers

6 people like this
Posted by So sickened
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 15, 2017 at 6:28 pm

It's too late for my daughter, who we had to remove from Jordan last year and place in a private school elsewhere.

She has lost trust in school staff who ignored her when she complained of sexual harassment by two bullies from another country.

She no longer trusts teachers, who had let this happen right under their noses-- then overloaded her with extra homework "to keep her busy and keep her quiet"!

She is, unfortunately suspicious of certain other groups of kids, who whisper to each other and point at her, in her presence.

I know kidsare resilient, and she is finally getting help-- almost no psychiatrists or psychologist take insurance--but she finds she can't bare to be in the presence of other kids from a certain country, because the girls held her down for the boys.

She may not have been raped, but she was harassed for weeks and then assaulted, the administrators turning a deaf ear, or saying they could not offend the parents, who would turn and sue them!

What about the offense done to my daughter? She will probably be suspicious of people from the "" offending nation" the rest of her life!

I wish we had listened to other more experienced parents and taken our blossoming daughter out of PAUSD in 5th grade, because it seems that's when the funny business begins with certain uncontrolled boys!

Like this comment
Posted by stanhutchings
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 20, 2017 at 9:07 pm

stanhutchings is a registered user.

One of the recommendations I made to Max McGee was that instead of spending money to rename schools, the funds should be used to teach staff sensitivity and how to proactively nip bullying, discrimination and harassment in the bud. My company has numerous MANDATORY training programs for employees and management, to educate everyone in order to prevent future violations of numerous Federal and State laws. Why don't our teachers have a similar requirement? And students should not be ignored until they cause problems! Mandatory classes should teach proper behavior toward other students and respect for teachers.

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