News

Editorial: A moment of truth

School board faces critical leadership test over sexual assault revelations

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.

Related content:

Another sexual assault reported at Paly

Behind the Headlines: District investigates sexual assault; Saving Buena Vista

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Comments

45 people like this
Posted by 38 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 26, 2017 at 10:25 am

Max McGee and Kim Diorio should tender their resignations immediately or be fired without a hefty walk away package. The incompetence shown by these administrators has to be dealt with now.


21 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on May 26, 2017 at 10:37 am

The community should be watching very closely the actions of our School Board. While 4 of the 5 members are new, there is one holdover (Melissa Baten-Caswell) from the time the Board voted to resist and fight the OCR findings and recommendations a few years back. "At that time, the school board chose to dig in, attack the OCR and stand by its administrators."


10 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 26, 2017 at 11:50 am

The point is as far as I see it, since I first started taking an interest in BoE affairs, there have been about 4 superintendents and I have lost count of how many board members, and during that time, for the most part, there have always been great criticisms of all of them.

I can't understand what a "good" superintendent or "good" board member is supposed to look like. They are all flawed. They are all human. They all do some things well and some things poorly. They are not perfect, not one of them.

I suppose really that they are a good reflection on the citizens of any town who votes them in. Just appear to be the best going at the time, which when you come to think of, is just all we are going to get.


29 people like this
Posted by Ummm...Except
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 26, 2017 at 1:55 pm

I take one exception to the editorial: Max should have held the investigation months ago when HE found the problem with his direct reports, and should have TOLD the board what the issue was.

The mere fact that this action never took place immediately nullifies Max's credibility. Now that the Board is doing Max's job, why exactly is he getting a pay check?


25 people like this
Posted by Supporter of Quality Public Education, Integrity, and Open Communications
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 26, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Thank you to the Palo Alto Weekly for a very thoughtful, informed editorial position. It's balanced and "spot on."


11 people like this
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on May 26, 2017 at 3:36 pm

Kudos to this school board for:
a) Working WITH the OCR vs. living in denial (Hi Barb MitcHell)
b) Proceeding with an independent investigation.
Builds credibility.


10 people like this
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on May 26, 2017 at 3:47 pm

the_punnisher is a registered user.

I've commented on this subject many times:

1) Special Ed teachers MUST BE TRAINED TO MEET FEDERAL STANDARDS when they take the job of working with Special Ed students. This is the case in many other school districts nationwide.

2) School Administrators MUST make timely reports of any incident that creates a hostile learning situation TO THE APPROPRIATE ADMINISTRAT
OR WHO'S JOB IS TO REPORT TO THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT BEFORE THE OCR IS FORCED TO DEAL WITH ANY ACT.

3) The COUNTY must have an ombudsman that specializes in FEDERAL LAW that applies to Special Ed incidents of harassment and/or bullying. That " non reporting and possible coverup is why the OCR was forced to act.

Why do I know this? My parent went from Special Ed teacher to Assistant Administrator BY FOLLOWING THESE RULES AND NOT BEING AFRAID TO REPORT PROBLEMS THAT HAPPENED TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE! Special Ed to VP TO P AND ASSISTANT ADMINISTRATOR. When I asked her to fix the PAUSD problems, she said " HELL NO! " ( SHE DOESN'T USUALLY SWEARS ).
Myself; I just passed on what I saw and learned as she climbed the employment ladder of the SJUSD...Its too bad this advice wasn't taken seriously when it was given.


21 people like this
Posted by PA mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 26, 2017 at 5:05 pm

It seems to me there is an endless loop of pass the buck at the PAUSD. The safety and education of our children play second fiddle to career civil sevants padding their retirement and spineless politicians preening for cameras pretending all is well and running smoothly in the hands of the professionals. Ultimately, parents must decide who they will entrust their childre's well being to while the absurdist theater continues in the district offices and school board meetings.


18 people like this
Posted by more than meets the eye
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 26, 2017 at 5:38 pm

The board knew about this incident back on October and didn't do anything then. They only started to take an interest after the media coverage.

I hope the investigation will also cover actions taken (or not) by the board!


18 people like this
Posted by Far Far Away
a resident of another community
on May 26, 2017 at 6:53 pm

The moment of truth for Palo Alto schools will come when the first school district employee shows up for work and finds the street in front of the office lined with network satellite trucks.


25 people like this
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2017 at 7:16 pm

Unfortunately, violating the Title IX law is ingrained in the behavior of the Paly Principal, supported by the District Management and Superintendent, and enabled by the PTA, and one or more board members. They all consider Title IX investigations as being "bad publicity for the district", so they obfuscate, attack parents who bring up the need to address the issues, and delay.

The way they obfuscate is by claiming that legally they cannot reveal the identity of the sexual predators because they are minors. This has nothing to do with following Title IX; Title IX states the school shall open an investigation - which was not done in at least 27 cases. And although the school district is restricted in releasing the sexual predator's school records, there is no restriction on releasing information from the criminal proceedings, which they could have done, because the sexual predator was convicted, and because of the nature of the crime, was made public.

When parent moderators of the one of the Paly message groups provided web links to the news, the head of the PTA removed the parents as moderators of the message group, claiming the groups should only provide "positive" messages; notifying parents of a sexual predator on campus was considered violating the PTA rules. Thus the PTA put themselves in the position of enabling the obfuscating the violation of Title IX law.

And the Board of Education? Well the saga of the OCR fight with the federal government says it all.

I am disappointed with the Paly Principal, the District Management and the PTA; I am hoping that the four newer Board of Education members can correct the situation.


16 people like this
Posted by Jerrod
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2017 at 7:30 pm

It is highly unlikely that any investigation, revealing all the facts, and conclusions based on those facts, will be welcome by PAUSD or Palo Alto. Therefore, any report will be a sham designed to satisfy various political and cultural needs. There are too many taboos in PA to touch the reality of the situation. Several years down the road, when the heat has cooled down, perhaps there will be a sober assessment...but not until then. In the meantime, the blame game will hold center stage, along with editorials that are self serving.


15 people like this
Posted by 24 year resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2017 at 10:40 am

"leadership" & "Palo Alto school board"

Oxymoron.


14 people like this
Posted by Luke
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 27, 2017 at 12:37 pm

The days when denial, delay and outright coverup, hoping with time all is forgotten with respect to sexual assaults is long gone. Too bad PAUSD leadership, at what appears to be all levels, either never got that memo (hard to believe), or simply chose to ignore it for various reasons that will likely never be reveled.

Why did PAUSD sit on a sex offender notification for months. In general, PAUSD appears to NOT have a clue how to handle sex offenses, bullying, special ed, and other similar types of complaints spanning many years. Why is this?

Diorio seems to be connected to so many scandals, has done little to nothing to address them, and yet, she is still here. How does that work?


2 people like this
Posted by Jerrod
a resident of Midtown
on May 27, 2017 at 2:59 pm

@Luke

"or simply chose to ignore it for various reasons that will likely never be reveled."

Yes, correct...but can you stand the full story? I doubt that Palo Alto could look the full story in the eye. Too many subjects that are taboo. Have you considered that the school administrators are actually covering for you?


7 people like this
Posted by full story
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2017 at 4:47 pm

Jerrod,

The full story is that the district gets in knots over even less non-taboo issues like homework or calendar or whatever.

The idea that Diorio is "covering" for anyone is dumb or at least accidental.

No need to wait for the movie years from now - look at the long trail of the past of not handling basics like homework without smokes and mirrors.


13 people like this
Posted by hysteria
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 28, 2017 at 8:08 pm

I've come to the conclusion that Palo Alto parents are a bunch of whiners who want immediate results without waiting for due process and facts to come to the surface versus speculation and innuendo.


11 people like this
Posted by Facts
a resident of another community
on May 28, 2017 at 9:55 pm

Hysteria,

While there may be some impatience, it is a fact the the district was informed of the felony conviction in January and did not file an investigation until after the non- Paly victim met with the district.

I think that the district was given time without any hysteria and the fact is that THEY DID NOTHING and this deserves some attention. People are impatient because when they didn't get hysterical, when they did sit back and trust the district to do it's job, it didn't. The point being that when people don't get hysterical, the district doesn't take things seriously.


15 people like this
Posted by ignore no more
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 28, 2017 at 11:53 pm

Let's not forget that we have the middle schools in need of attention too. The climate in our middle schools is a serious concern. They are plagued by several cases of bullying - Physical, verbal, cyber- lots of staff turn over - esp at Jordan , lack of leadership, large class sizes, the llist goes on. The quality of teaching is suffering and the behavior of students is declining..Save our middle schools!



9 people like this
Posted by School districts exist to serve
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 29, 2017 at 9:19 am

@Resident,
A good administrator in school district knows how to work with the population to solve problems, knows how to follow the laws, knows how to provide the support to faculty and families needed to let them be their best.


@hysteria,
I have been making records requests for years and getting only a runaround. My choice is to get a lawyer and pay $$, complain to the OCR, or remind them more than we already have, all of which will get my family retaliated against (because that's what happens). The law gives a deadline for replying and for providing, all of which have been violated a hundred times over. The impact of the past retaliation and backbiting to my student will probably last a lifetime. Tell me again what else needs to be done to wait for due process? We have tried to give McGee time to settle in. We have waited just to lick our wounds. This is not a Title IX issue - what I see is the district finally being forced to deal with those because someone complained, and ignoring us and worse because we have been patient. That's the pattern. Telling families to just be patient and nice is a power play and never results in action. [Portion removed.]


12 people like this
Posted by Roger
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 30, 2017 at 6:21 pm

In all these discussions I have never read anything about parental responsibility.
The sex offender case is a case in point.
Schools have an obligation to educate,the kid wasn't arrested or in jail, he was on probation.Pausd had an obligation to educate him.
Had they made the issue public knowledge the kids life could have been in danger.
My question has to be why did his parents allow him to continue to go to Paly?
Aye there's the rub. Parents.


6 people like this
Posted by Parent Done With Paly
a resident of Downtown North
on May 30, 2017 at 10:16 pm

This editorial and most of the accompanying comments reveal an atmosphere of hysteria. I am extremely glad that all my children exited Paly before this tendency developed as far as it has. It could soon render Paly useless as an educational institution. What administrator is going to want a job in a school district where the community has torches stacked and ready to burn for the next witch hunt?


Like this comment
Posted by jim
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 31, 2017 at 10:15 pm

@ Parent Done with Paly

How about an administrator that's willing to follow the law, protect the students and do what's right??? That'd be a fresh change from the last 4 years of Diorio. Look at the latest UCP log. Check out the spike in complaints since it came out that the administration was not following the law.


Like this comment
Posted by common sense
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 1, 2017 at 12:05 am

The Paly Principal, the district administration, and the PTA leadership is the personification of the town of Stepford in the novel Stepford Wives.

Title IX isn't something which fits in their world of Stepford.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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