In a well-run organization, mistakes are acknowledged, their causes assessed and practices are corrected. The organization emerges stronger because its leaders accept responsibility and are held accountable for improvement, or dismissed.
This is not the way the Palo Alto school district has been functioning, and these failures are propelling the board and the community toward a critical day of reckoning in the next few weeks.
Not satisfied with the answers it was getting from Superintendent Max McGee on how the district has responded to reports of sexual assaults on the Palo Alto High School campus and of a student's juvenile conviction for an off-campus sexual assault, the school board has retained an independent law firm to conduct an investigation into the actions of school and district administrators.
This step, viewed by some as either unnecessary or designed to push the matter into the summer months when families are away, is an appropriately measured response as long as the investigation is done quickly and the results are shared with the public. A rush to judgment is not fair to anyone and exposes the district to avoidable litigation that could arise from precipitous personnel actions.
It is the same step that we urged the previous school board to take four years ago when the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued scathing findings about how district officials had handled the bullying of a disabled Terman Middle School student. At that time, the school board chose to dig in, attack the OCR and stand by its administrators.
With four of five members new to the board since the Terman fiasco, this board has a chance to demonstrate it puts getting it right above protecting administrators and the Palo Alto school brand. Having engaged an outside investigator who will report directly to the board, trustees have signaled they share the community's concerns over how top administrators have responded to numerous sexual harassment and assault incidents and that it is prepared to act. We now need to give them a chance to gather the facts and do their jobs.
Unfortunately, many parents still do not understand that the school district's obligation to investigate reports of sexual assault applies regardless of whether an incident was initially viewed as consensual or an assault, and has nothing to do with whether criminal charges are filed.
Under both state and federal law, school officials have a duty to initiate a formal investigation any time they learn of possible sexual harassment or assault involving students or employees, make findings, take appropriate steps to support victims, conduct any needed training or educational sessions and provide the parties involved with a written report summarizing the outcome of the investigation.
The law requires that such reports be handled under the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), a policy that sets timelines and procedures and requires disclosure on a public log. This duty to investigate is unrelated to any involvement of law enforcement and is required even if the victim fails to make a complaint.
The purpose of the requirement to conduct investigation is to gather the facts and to make findings as to whether the incident created a hostile educational environment for the victim or potentially other students and what steps should be taken to create a safe campus for all students.
The district has repeatedly failed to conduct these investigations. It did not conduct proper and timely investigations into allegations against former Paly Principal Phil Winston, English teacher Kevin Sharp, science teacher Ronnie Farrell and into several reports of student sexual assault or harassment at both Paly and Gunn. Similar failings have occurred with bullying incidents at the middle schools.
Wednesday night's announcement by Gunn principal Denise Herrmann that she will join the exodus of senior administrators and become an associate superintendent in the Fremont Unified School District is just the latest jolt to a district which has seen unprecedented turnover within its leadership.
In choosing to leave Palo Alto and take herself out of consideration for a new top assistant superintendent position here, without saying a word, Herrmann is speaking volumes about the state of our district and raises additional questions for examination by the school board.
As obvious as it may seem where accountability should lie for the district's failures in handling the sexual assault incidents, it is important for the community to withhold judgment for a few short weeks until all the facts are known. Then, we expect the board to take action to ensure our schools are being led by people who respect and follow the law and district policies and who are committed to changing a district culture that is infuriating more and more members of the community.