A man the Palo Alto school district has hired as its interim Title IX compliance officer, charged with helping the district improve its compliance with the federal civil rights law, has spent most of his career on the other side of the fence, including as acting chief attorney in one of the federal Office for Civil Right's enforcement offices.
John DiPaolo, an education attorney and Obama administration appointee who held several positions in the U.S. Department of Education over the last six years, started his work in Palo Alto Unified last week. His immediate, primary focus, he said in an interview Thursday afternoon, has been interviewing staff at Palo Alto High School, where the initial public disclosure of sexual assault allegations last month has sparked a spike in students reporting sexual violence and harassment.
DiPaolo spent his first few days in the district meeting with Superintendent Max McGee and school board members, he said. The bulk of his time this week was spent at Paly interviewing staff about incidents that are or have been the subject of official Title IX investigations and ones that haven't, he said. Some cases will require writing investigation reports and providing resolutions to complainants, while others could require full investigations, he said.
He has not met with any students and doesn't yet plan to but clarified with the Weekly after this interview that he's "very open" to talking with all members of the community.
DiPaolo is working with Palo Alto Unified on a temporary basis through a national law firm, Cozen O' Connor, which the district has hired to investigate senior leadership's handling of the initial Paly sexual assault case. DiPaolo joined the law firm as an attorney earlier this year after leaving his post in the federal government "as a political point" when the new president assumed office on Jan. 20, he said Thursday.
In his interim role, DiPaolo replaces Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, who doubled as the district's Title IX coordinator. She announced her resignation in April.
DiPaolo declined to comment on specific cases or evaluate the district's response, but said staff have been "fully cooperative" and are "ready to get this right."
He declined to state whether he believed the district had failed to fulfill its obligations under civil-rights law Title IX in the recently reported case at Paly. A male Paly student who had been convicted in juvenile court for an off-campus sexual assault and also reported to school officials for an on-campus incident left school voluntarily last month after the allegations were publicized in media reports.
Generally, DiPaolo said that "the degree of understanding and sophistication of responses on Title IX issues in the K-12 level is not where it needs to be."
In districts across the country, school staff are failing to recognize when reports require the immediate launching of a full Title IX investigation, he said.
DiPaolo's short-term focus in Palo Alto, he said, is to continue the work expected of the district Title IX coordinator. Longer term, he plans to help the district put a structure in place that's "extremely professional, extremely effective and dealing very intensively and capably with these issues."
He has not worked for a school district in this capacity previously.
DiPaolo urged the district to consider creating a position dedicated to broad civil rights oversight, including Title IX as well as race- and disability-based discrimination and harassment. This role should have a focus and expertise on "how do we educate people on rights and responsibilities in those areas and then how do we deal with it when there are problems ... both through an educational approach and also through investigation and adjudication and necessary restorative or corrective measures," he said. "These issues are all connected so it's good to have them under one umbrella."
DiPaolo said he will draft a job description for a permanent Title IX compliance officer, who he hopes will be on board before the end of the summer.
The "theme" of his career, DiPaolo said, has been "expanding educational access and opportunity," from working as a high school math teacher to his work as an education attorney. He first joined the Office for Civil Rights in 2011 as chief of staff, then worked as deputy assistant secretary for policy for just under two years.
In the latter role, his team wrote a 2014 update to the Office for Civil Rights' well-known "Dear Colleague" letter, a guidance document that laid out K-12 school districts, college and universities' obligations for responding to sexual violence.
In his time at the Washington D.C. enforcement office, which oversees Washington D.C., Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the agency resolved two major Title IX investigations at the Virginia Military Institute and Norfolk Public Schools in Virginia, DiPaolo said.
As for the future of Title IX enforcement under a new presidential administration, DiPaolo noted the Office for Civil Rights has already indicated a shift in approach. An internal memo from the new acting assistant secretary for civil rights released this week directs enforcement offices to investigate complaints individually rather than broader, systemic probes, as was done under the Obama administration.
"That means from that perspective, (there's) a little less energy going into it," DiPaolo said.
Board President Terry Godfrey has previously said that the district expects to receive a report on Cozen O' Connor's investigation in time for an annual evaluation of the superintendent scheduled for this Wednesday, June 21. The district also added a superintendent evaluation to the board's closed session agenda for its regular Tuesday meeting.