The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights will investigate two separate reports of sexual assault at Palo Alto High School as part of its ongoing monitoring of the school district following a yearslong investigation into a string of Title IX violations.
The federal agency indicated its decision to investigate these two cases — both involving students on campus, one in November 2015 and another in October 2016 — in response to a complaint filed in July by a parent who alleges the district failed to comply with anti-discrimination law Title IX in these incidents. The complainant, parent Kathy Jordan, provided the Office for Civil Right's letter to the Weekly.
In 2015, a female Paly junior reported to the school that a male student had sexually assaulted her on the quad. In 2016, administrators became aware of an incident of oral sex in a campus bathroom between a female Paly freshman and male junior, which the freshman's mother told the Weekly was not consensual but school leaders said was not initially reported to them as a sexual assault. The same male student was convicted in juvenile court several months later for an off-campus sexual assault involving a female Menlo-Atherton High School student. Media reports that publicly disclosed the 2016 incident this spring sparked community uproar over the district's handling of student sexual violence.
Although neither of these cases was covered in the Office for Civil Rights' prior investigation into the school district, a resolution agreement approved this spring commits the district to at least three years of federal monitoring and a series of corrective actions. The agency said it will be examining the incidents under the resolution agreement rather than opening a new case.
The Office for Civil Rights "is already in the process of closely examining the district's actions and investigations related to all of the matters referred to in your letter and will be addressing any compliance issues and identifying any needed corrective actions," OCR Team Leader Sara Berman wrote to Jordan on July 31.
Jordan, whose older daughter recently graduated from Paly and was not a victim in either case, also filed in June eight formal personnel complaints against district leadership and Paly administrators she alleges violated board policy, state and federal law in their handling of these two cases.
At the district level, Jordan filed complaints against Superintendent Max McGee and former Chief Student Services and Title IX Compliance Officer Holly Wade, who announced her resignation in April.
At Paly, Jordan has filed multiple complaints against Principal Kim Diorio, Assistant Principal Adam Paulson, Assistant Principal Vicki Kim, Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson, former Assistant Principal Kathie Laurence (now Gunn High School's principal) and Mental Health and Wellness Coordinator Jonathan Frecceri, who was not an administrator and is no longer working at Paly.
Jordan alleges the administrators failed to properly respond to the two sexual-assault reports, fostering a "hostile climate of sexual harassment at Paly, rather than a climate free of sexual harassment in which the students can participate in the educational programming."
Jordan has requested the district terminate each employee against whom she filed a complaint. In an interview, she said she will be satisfied with no other outcome than their removal.
"Complying with the law is not optional," she told the Weekly. "If OCR is saying it's a systemic problem, which it is, how will that problem be corrected with the same personnel in the same place in the same roles who may take the same actions again?"
McGee declined to comment on Office for Civil Rights' decision, stating: "We take the complaints seriously and we will be investigating them."
The school district has opened an investigation into Jordan's complaints and is taking them "very seriously," Karen Hendricks, the new assistant superintendent for human resources, wrote to Jordan on July 31. The district is, however, waiting for a report from a law firm currently investigating administrators' handling of the 2016 incident before addressing Jordan's employee concerns, Hendricks wrote. (The firm, Cozen O'Connor, is expected to give a public update in open session sometime "early in the school year," board President Terry Godfrey said.)
Jordan's complaints "present an unusual level of complexity," Hendricks wrote in a follow-up letter to Jordan on Monday, Aug. 14. "The challenging underlying claims must be resolved before we can address your requests that employment actions be taken with regard to the individuals allegedly involved."
Given this, the district did not meet a 60-day deadline to conclude the investigation into her complaints. Jordan appealed the district's "inconclusive" decision to the California Department of Education on Aug. 4. The state's Education Equity Uniform Complaint Office will be contacting the district as a result, according to a letter the office sent to Jordan.
Given Jordan made multiple complaints about the same employees, Hendricks said in her Aug. 14 letter that the district will now be applying the 60-day timeline to the most recent complaint filed.
Jordan alleges that Diorio failed to conduct a proper Title IX investigation in both the 2015 and 2016 cases and to produce required written documentation of the investigation and resolution to the victims. She also alleges that Diorio violated Title IX and state government code by "withholding" 25 sexual-misconduct reports other staff made to her about former Paly principal Phil Winston. (In its findings, the Office for Civil Rights determined that Diorio, then assistant principal, was not prompt enough in reporting these allegations about Winston, then her supervisor, that she received from numerous staff over the course of three years.)
Jordan also questioned the involvement, or lack thereof, of Holly Wade as Title IX compliance officer, in the cases, and whether a culture of school autonomy is contributing to the district's failure to follow policy and law.
The other Paly administrators, she alleges, should have been sufficiently trained and aware of their legal obligations under Title IX to respond properly to the students' reports.
A fire was lit under Jordan this spring after the media reports about the October 2016 incident. She had not been involved in school district politics previously, she said, but has since become a regular presence at school board meetings and an unrelenting advocate on this issue. Since May she has filed 30 Public Records Act requests, most of which have not yet been filled, in a hope to surface evidence that might support the job-performance complaints. The complaints cite exhaustively from federal law, board policy, news coverage of Title IX issues at Paly and conversations she has had with the families of the female Paly students from the two cases.
Jordan said she is motivated by a concern for student safety and a desire to hold the district accountable.
"It could be my child that this could happen to. It could be any of our children that this could happen to," she said.
"I believe in the goal that Title IX hopes to achieve," she added. "What's happening in the district is not bringing us closer to that."
Since May, the district has rushed to make changes in response to community concerns, including asking Cozen O'Connor to conduct an independent investigation of the district's handling of the 2016 Paly case and creating a new full-time, district-level position to oversee Title IX and civil-rights compliance. (The district has yet to fill that position, but an interim coordinator hired this summer will stay until a permanent one is hired, McGee said.) Policy revisions and increased staff training were also already underway as part of the resolution agreement with the Office for Civil Rights.
In a message to the school district community in July, school board President Terry Godfrey acknowledged that a "change in culture and in processes" is needed.
The school district has been under federal investigation since 2013, after an article in Paly student publication Verde Magazine on the school's "rape culture" caught the Office for Civil Rights' attention. The agency later expanded its investigation to include multiple reports of sexual assault, dating violence and sexual harassment on- and off-campus at Paly and Gunn High School.
A letter of findings the Office for Civil Rights released in March details a repeated failure to comply with Title IX and its own policies and procedures in these cases.
The district has seen a sharp spike in sexual-violence reports since May. The district has since documented more than 20 Title IX-related incidents in its Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) log, including five new reports made in July and August. The district is now posting the log on a new Title IX compliance webpage on a weekly basis. The complaints involve both students and staff, on- and off-campus incidents and have been reported at the high schools as well as middle and elementary campuses.
In the Office for Civil Rights' letter to Jordan in July, Berman encouraged her and others in the community "to continue to come forward and report to OCR, so that we can ensure compliance" with the resolution agreement.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of sexual misconduct in the Palo Alto school district. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.