The Palo Alto Unified Board of Education, facing pressure from alarmed parents and reacting swiftly to media reports of repeated sexual assaults by a Palo Alto High School student, decided Tuesday afternoon to hire a law firm to investigate district administrators.
In an emergency closed session meeting just five days after a local TV station exposed the allegations, the school board agreed to hire national law firm Cozen O'Connor to investigate "how district staff handled the issues surrounding the events at Palo Alto High School," to assist the board in its evaluation of the superintendent and to "aid the district in addressing any Title IX or other issues," board President Terry Godfrey told reporters after the meeting. The district already contracted the firm, nationally renowned for its work investigating Title IX violations, this spring to conduct investigations into past sexual misconduct cases as required by a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
The board had called the closed meeting to evaluate three top district officials over their involvement in the case: Superintendent Max McGee, Paly Principal Kim Diorio and Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, also the district's Title IX coordinator.
All appeared to dodge a bullet Tuesday: Godfrey announced that the board took no personnel action. The board will conduct McGee's annual evaluation in June and share the results of that publicly "to the extent we can," Godfrey said.
She later said the board hopes the firm will start its investigation "as soon as possible" and complete it in time for McGee's evaluation.
While the administrators will remain in their jobs for now, the attorney for the male Paly junior who was convicted of one felony and involved in at least one additional sexual incident on campus issued a statement while the school board was still meeting in closed session. The student has "elected not to complete the school year on campus," attorney Stephanie Rickard said.
The district attorney's office also declined to file any charges against him "other than consensual underage sexual activity" for the incident that occurred at Paly last October, Rickard said. It's unclear if he was convicted of this crime, a misdemeanor, since court records for that charge are sealed.
Students and parents filled a standing-room-only meeting at the district office on Tuesday afternoon to express their shock, outrage and concern at the district's handling of the multiple sexual assault allegations, calling on trustees to show leadership in addressing what one parent called an "epidemic."
"We don't expect just purely being reactive," Paly parent Chris Cummings told board members. "We don't expect passivity. We expect things of this nature and things of this consequence to be handled proactively, and that's just not what I feel has happened here."
Alarmingly, several speakers reported their own experiences with inappropriate behavior at the hands of other students, including stalking, at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools.
Eleanor Lee Wang said her daughter, a Gunn student, was groped on campus and reported it to the school after seeing the student do the same to another girl.
"There's not a sense of safety," she said, urging more transparency around notifying parents about unsafe behavior on campus.
A Paly parent said her daughter was stalked by male students the past two years. Her daughter, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, told the board that she felt "fearful" at school, like "my world had been turned upside down." Despite reporting the stalking to administrators, she said she felt like "no one was there for me."
"I'm here to speak on behalf of the students who are silent," the teenager said.
McGee told reporters outside the meeting that he was unaware of these incidents and would follow up on them. At next week's board meeting, he said he plans to propose a new district-level position -- assistant superintendent for strategic initiatives and operations -- to oversee Title IX compliance and to make sure that "nothing like this will slip through the cracks."
He also said he is organizing a community panel with the Palo Alto Council of PTAs that would feature him, a police officer, juvenile justice department representative and education lawyer.
A Paly parent also said her own daughter had experienced inappropriate behavior by the male student in question, who was convicted in juvenile court in January for forcing oral sex on a Menlo-Atherton High School student in a church bathroom in 2015.
A Paly freshman also reported that the same student forced oral sex on her in a campus bathroom this October. A third victim from outside the district has reportedly notified Palo Alto Unified that the male student sexually assaulted her off campus, a claim the Weekly has been unable to substantiate.
In an anonymous piece posted on Medium Wednesday, the third victim described her response to and processing of the alleged assault. (The Weekly believes the author is the Redwood City victim, based on verification by a source with knowledge of the situation.)
"Please, don’t let this become a failed example that shows other students they can get away with acts like these," she wrote. "My life changed in one night, but rape culture won’t change overnight… we must be vigilant in educating all young people about the realities of sexual violence.
"We will not tolerate this," she wrote.
On Tuesday, multiple speakers called for the firing of McGee, Diorio and Wade.
Paly parent Michelle Higgins, however, said she does not believe that "the problems in the entrenched culture this case has highlighted will be fixed by simply removing staff.
"I would prefer to see an honest and thorough examination of what went wrong, an acknowledgment that this district has a problem that is not isolated to any one school or any one staff member when it comes to equity and justice issues, whether they be related to race, to class or to gender and what constructive steps we can take to prevent making the same mistakes again," she said.
She also urged the board to evaluate the role district law firms played in these cases and for the district to take steps to address "rampant sexual harassment" in its middle and high schools.
Students, parents react to reports
Student and parent reaction to last week's media reports was immediate, and took many forms. A Paly junior, Darrow Hornik, launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to buy teal wristbands, the color of National Sexual Assault Awareness month, to wear in solidarity with victims of sexual assault. She quickly made and surpassed her funding goal. She purchased 2,600 wristbands -- enough for every Paly student to wear one -- and gave them out to other students on the quad at lunch on Wednesday.
On Monday, multiple Paly students wore white to school to stand with the victims and send a message to their school.
Posters also appeared briefly at Paly and the district office identifying the male student and calling for the resignations of Superintendent Max McGee and Paly Principal Kim Diorio for "failing the students that you have promised to protect."
Paly freshman Emma Higgins said in an interview she was "outraged" that Paly allowed the student to stay in school. She wore white on Monday as a way to voice her concerns to the administration.
"Wearing white is a peaceful yet forceful way of showing the administration that we support the victims and urge them to expel the predator, as it would ensure the safety of both the victims and all girls attending Paly," she told the Weekly.
Anmol Nagar, Paly's student body president, said she's heard both concern and confusion among students in recent days. She's hoping to see more transparency from the district in the coming days and weeks.
"I don't think that it is helpful for the community to simply demonize this student in front of his fellow students, and I think efforts would be better placed in reassessing how we address the issue of sexual assault as a whole, getting justice for the victims and their families and supporting the victims personally," she told the Weekly.
For the Palo Alto mother who in 2014 filed one of the Office for Civil Rights complaints that launched a yearslong federal probe into how the Palo Alto school district responds to reports of sexual misconduct, the current reports are "deja vu," she told the Weekly Tuesday.
The mother, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, filed a complaint alleging the district violated Title IX in its handling of stalking and relationship violence her daughter experienced as a Gunn High School student. This spring, the Office for Civil Rights found the district violated Title IX in her case by failing to take immediate interim measures to protect the victim and to "assess and address the hostile environment" she faced at school as a result of the harassment, a letter of findings states.
In the current case involving the male Paly student, the district has emphasized that he was not convicted for the on-campus incident, but rather for the off-campus assault. A legal Q&A prepared by the district's new law firm, Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, on Palo Alto Unified's behalf in response to this specific case states that a school cannot expel a student for committing or attempting to commit a sexual assault "unless the acts took place at school or at a school activity.
However, if an off-campus incident, such as a sexual assault, affects the victim on campus -- such as being bullied or harassed -- the school is "obligated to investigate, stop the harassment, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects on campus," the Q&A states. This could also warrant transferring a student to another school, "consistent with Title IX guidance," the firm wrote.
But it is "absolutely the school's responsibility," the mother said, to address any effects of harassment or sexual assault, whether it happens on or off campus.
The mother said involved administrators as well as board members, who have said they were largely in the dark about the specifics of this case until media reports last week, should be held accountable for their apparent failure to adhere to district policy -- and federal law -- in this case.
Last week's news has spurred difficult conversations about sexual assault, consent and safety in homes, on campus and on social media. Acknowledging that not all facts about the different incidents are publicly known — and might not be, given the students involved are minors and the school district is limited in what it can say by federal student privacy laws — students and parents have expressed concern about the district's handling of the case, particularly the fact that the male student remained at school and has been playing on a varsity sports team.
Two days after the story broke, 50 parents gathered for two hours midday at a Palo Alto parent's home to learn about the ins and outs of federal anti-discrimination Title IX from Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber. They planned to talk about "how the process is supposed to work when someone reports a sexual assault, how we can talk to our daughters about sexual assault, rape and rape culture, and how to empower our girls," parent Jill Asher wrote in a Facebook post inviting others to the event.
Some parents are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to trying to stem sexual violence and misconduct. Paly parent Laura Prentiss, a social worker, said she and another local mother, a marriage and family therapist, started teaching an informal workshop out of Prentiss' home to teach other mothers how to talk about sex, consent, body image and related issues with their daughters. They started it because of incidents in the district, she said, from the former Paly principal being disciplined for sexual harassment to student media reports about a "rape culture" at Paly. They just started a second group for mothers of boys.
Parents' desire for more information and guidance, she said, underscores the need for a comprehensive sex-education program that continues through high school and touches on these topics.
"To me, it's all related," she said in an interview with the Weekly. "I don't know that these assaults could have been prevented with (students) having had more information about consent, but I do think that the more and more kids are talking about it and knowing about it and know who to go to when things go sour and how to get the proper help, then at least some of the damage can be reduced when these kind of situations happen."
"My hope is that this is the straw that breaks the camel's back," she added about the Paly case, "and the district really stops and looks at how our district handles these kinds of issues, what kind of messaging our kids get about sexual relationships, about consent (and) about safety on campus."
• View a timeline of events in this story here.
For immediate in-person crisis assistance and counseling services, contact the YWCA of Silicon Valley's 24-hour Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Support Line at 800-572-2782. For more information, go to ywca-sv.org.