Editorial: Déjà vu for school district

New independent investigation reveals systemic failures, administrative disarray

Another disturbing portrait emerged this week of a school district still confused about its legal obligations in handling sexual-harassment complaints, with poor oversight by Superintendent Max McGee and now-departed Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, inadequate record-keeping and a deliberate practice of using text messaging and phone calls to avoid creating written, discoverable records.

These findings are among the many that detail failures to follow the law and the district's own policies by Cozen O'Connor, a nationally respected law firm that presented the school board last week with a report on its investigation into how the district handled the report of an October 2016 sexual assault in a Palo Alto High School bathroom involving a 14 year-old freshman and a 17-year-old junior.

The report was commissioned by the school board to obtain an outside, independent assessment of the conduct of district administrators and Palo Alto High staff. (The board has met for hours in multiple closed sessions to discuss McGee's future over the last two weeks, but has yet to announce any action.)

The report echoes conclusions reached repeatedly in previous cases, including late last year by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) following its investigation into unrelated earlier incidents of sexual harassment and assault at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools. That investigation also concluded the district failed to follow legal requirements and district policy and resulted in a resolution agreement signed earlier this year that mandated new training and administrative procedures and on-going monitoring of the district for at least the next three years.

And these were the same failures that occurred in a Jordan Middle School bullying case in 2016 and that go back at least as far as a 2012-13 bullying case at Terman Middle School that resulted in a blistering letter of findings by the Office for Civil Rights that was kept secret from both the school board and public by former Superintendent Kevin Skelly.

After each new case, district leaders have promised that lessons were learned and changes made and that systems had been established to correct the problems.

At numerous school board meetings since McGee arrived in 2014, as new incidents have arisen, trustees have repeatedly received assurances from him and other administrators that the district had implemented new measures to become compliant with the law, only to later discover that such measures had not been taken.

For example, at the Aug. 25, 2015, school board meeting, at which time McGee reported to the board on new OCR inquiries regarding sexual harassment complaints at Jordan Middle School, he said, "We really wanted to dig deeper into ... what our internal practices were for identifying and documenting sexual harassment claims. Holly (Wade) has spent hours on this. ... I think things are in order and by the book. We've clarified our protocols and made sure, for example, that all instances of sexual harassment are logged in the UCP (Uniform Complaint Procedure) log. That was not the case last year."

Trustee Ken Dauber asked, "Am I understanding you correctly, that going forward all complaints or reports of sexual harassment whether written or oral will be logged into UCP logs?"

McGee replied, "That's correct. Every one."

We now know that wasn't even close to the truth.

The Cozen O'Connor investigation determined that the district is still not properly logging or investigating incidents of sexual harassment or assault and is plagued by systemic communications and record-keeping problems.

The new report also reveals two examples of intentional deception. Investigating attorneys discovered that school and district administrators had been trained to communicate by telephone or text message to "avoid creating documentation that could potentially be publicly released." And it disclosed that Wade had created a back-dated memo to document the initiation of an investigation that in fact was not initiated until later.

While Wade is now gone and McGee is soon to be gone, the board must address in the hiring of a new superintendent a district culture that shuns accountability and documentation, relies excessively on well-intentioned but ill-equipped school principals and that tolerates chaotic seat-of-the-pants responses to foreseeable incidents rather than thoughtful and rational protocols. No emergency room could operate without such discipline, and no school district entrusted with the safety of kids can either.

An overhaul of management systems and the centralization of all compliance and investigation responsibility is urgently needed, and that must begin immediately under new leadership if we are to restore public confidence in the school district.


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50 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 22, 2017 at 2:08 pm

And to think that 3 of the 5 board members still want to keep McGee this year. Unbelievable!

39 people like this
Posted by Stew Pid
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 22, 2017 at 2:09 pm

The Board needs to step up and conduct a mass firing of everyone who did not do their jobs but instead denied a student her rights, suppressed information, and avoided documentation.

That's the only action that would send a sufficiently strong, clear message here.

2 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 22, 2017 at 2:33 pm

A really absurd big deal is being made of a failure to dot every i and cross every t of the arcane federal rules remotely imposed by bureaucrats when in fact the common sense approach was followed in the real world by perfectly competent and well meaning people. I have not seen any explanation of what harm was done by the failure to provides certain forms to the victim or the incomplete documentation of the incident in some central file.

37 people like this
Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 22, 2017 at 2:37 pm

Umm, maybe the fact that she left school?

65 people like this
Posted by Edmund Burke
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 22, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Good editorial.

One thing that I think could be emphasized that is not is the human cost to the students who have been sexually harassed and victimized -- including by teachers -- in our school system. It is too easy to get bogged down in the dry details of the procedures that were not followed or the personnel who clearly did not do what they should have. These are important points but always we need to keep top of mind what the real issue is.

These procedures are required by Title IX and the relevant purpose of Title IX is to prevent our students from being sexually victimized at school. Girls who have been victimized are far more likely to experience lifelong problems and issues including PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidality, educational problems, work issues, abusive relationships, and more.

There is no worse thing short of a shooting that can happen to a student at school than to be sexually assaulted by a teacher in a classroom. Every member of the Paly community and every member of the district administration, including every member of the school board should be ashamed that Ronnie Farrell abused a student in our school and after that happened should have been 100% committed to ensuring that every staff member was doing everything correctly and in compliance with the law. After the Kevin Sharp fiasco, everyone should have been on high alert for grooming issues and all students should have been trained. We should have had meaningful sex ed and consent education for all students the next day. Students and parents should have been trained in the danger signs immediately.

In tort law there is a term called an "omitted precaution." That is a safety measure that was not taken that if taken might have prevented the injury. I am still looking an unomitted precaution in this area.

So despite five years of civil rights investigations, two findings against the district, two school board elections, a change in Superintendent, and millions in legal fees -- students are still being raped and abused and assaulted and bullied for it at our schools.

Where was the line of people at the microphone to speak for those girls? Why was the Paly student who spoke last night speaking up for Kim Diorio rather than for his classmate who got orally assaulted in a bathroom? Or his other classmate who got assaulted by Mr. Farrell in a classroom? Or his other classmates who have been harassed, bullied, stalked and assaulted around the district?

We need a different, survivor centered perspective on this issue. Procedures do not matter for their own sake, They matter because they protect students from sexual violence and doing that is literally the least that a school can do to ensure student well being.

46 people like this
Posted by Why Title IX
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 22, 2017 at 3:33 pm

@Observer - a statement was read recently at a board meeting on behalf of the mother of another sexual assault victim of the same Paly perpetrator. It described how her daughter, 16 years old, had taken the initiative last spring to reach out through her school counselor to Paly, to make sure they knew the perpetrator had been convicted of felony sexual assault and were making sure he had not and could not do harm to others.

It turns out - they had not done that. The administrators claimed not to know the student had been convicted of felony sexual assault, despite having been sent notice by the court. They had not investigated whether the student had harassed or assaulted other girls at Paly. They had not put in place protections to prevent further harm.

As the mother put it, the safety of Paly's female students should not depend on the moxie and concern of a 16 year old sexual assault victim from another town, who went above and beyond to do the right thing.

So no, you don't know if anyone else was harmed (aside from the girl who left the school). No one knows, because no one ever looked. That is what a Title IX investigation would have told us.

8 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 22, 2017 at 3:55 pm

I still want to know what is being done to stop the girls going into boys bathrooms and boys into girls bathrooms.

Is there a policy about this? Is there any type of monitoring to make sure that this doesn't happen? Is there any type of discipline if this is found to have happened?

We still have no idea if this initial incident took place before school, during class time, between classes, lunch or recess, or after school. I want to know that my daughter will be safe using a girls' bathroom in high school without any boys entering looking for sex or anything else. Is there any type of way that the high schools can prevent sex in bathrooms?

13 people like this
Posted by Go to the school board
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 22, 2017 at 4:26 pm

@Parent, this is probably at least the 6th posting I have seen probably all from the same poster asking about bathroom accessibility and regulations. If this topic is so important to you I would suggest you contact the board or high school administration where your child attends rather than repeatedly bringing it up in these forums.

27 people like this
Posted by Board Please Protect our Children and Fire Max & Dorio
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 23, 2017 at 9:58 am

Good editorial. This thorough investigation has concluded and a detailed report released disclosing their findings by a top law firm. Despite repeated promises over the years by Max (and Dorio) to create a safe environment for our children they have failed and still train the administrators to cover up by not leaving a paper trail and not ensuring follow-up for kids who are sexually harassed. PAUSD board please start protecting our students by firing Max and Dorio and send a clear message to the administration that this behavior will not be tolerated and student safety comes before covering up their mistakes.

9 people like this
Posted by It's bad
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 23, 2017 at 11:59 am

This isn't much farther than a coach not doing right thing when someone reports another coach abusing young kids.

Fire them.

23 people like this
Posted by Uber fired Kakanick. Supe needs to be fired
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 23, 2017 at 1:37 pm

Uber fired Kalanick after an equally damning report. He was fired for perpetuating a hostile environment.

What exactly is the Board waiting for? Do they need a reort from Eric Holder himself explaining that PAUSD has perpetuated a long time CYA hostile environment against students particularly females and particularly special Ed and 504 students!?

And PAUSD uses text messages to hide their mess. Sounds like the HR dept was trained by the sleazy law firms the PAUSD hires. Board members who can't fire the supe and cronies need to resign immediately. If they can't do their jobs they need to step down.

9 people like this
Posted by Impunity
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2017 at 7:28 am


The difference is that corporations are held to a moral standard that government employees are not. Uber could be sued for their mistakes, both as a corporation and as individuals.

It is impossible to sue a government employee for their mistakes - they are indemnified. And educators are specifically protected in the state constitution making it nearly impossible to fire them for anything much short of felony behavior.

They run the state, ergo they run the district.

The accountability everyone is clamoring for is practically impossible.

Unless we charter the whole district.

Until that happens, we are just chickens clucking at the fox. Your job is to send your money and children to be wasted and molested.

3 people like this
Posted by A Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 24, 2017 at 7:37 am

@Impunity, the superintendent has a contract with termination clauses;firing him is straight forward. The principal is tenured and difficult to fire, but can easily be reassigned, even to a non administrative position. It's up to the board.

4 people like this
Posted by Impunity
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 24, 2017 at 8:39 am

@a parent

Okay, great - we can fire one guy symbolically (he has already resigned). All the other bad actors will continue soak up public dollars for mistreating our kids. Because even you admit there is no accountability even possible.

You have basically confirmed my point: the government sector has less accountability than the corporate sector.

We will not have accountability in government until government employees can be fired for failing their job and personally sued for establishing a harassing environment. (I.e. The exact same treatment as private sector employees)

Fair is fair.

Public employees treat our students the way they do, because they can.

3 people like this
Posted by A Parent
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 24, 2017 at 8:57 am

@Impunity, I think you overstate it. Teachers and administrators can be removed, but it takes a lengthy HR process with lots of documentation and hearings. This is different in degree, but not different in kind, from most union environments, public or private.

Personally sued - most private executives and managers, at least, are indemnified against claims in the performance of their duty. There are exceptions (fraud, bad faith acts) with a high bar. I don't know about government employees, I would think it is similar.

BTW, all the senior officials (down to the Asst Superintendent level, I think) of a school district are individual contract employees who can be terminated. It's not a lot, but more than one.

In the case of PAUSD, I actually think the vast majority of the employees are well-meaning and dedicated - above average in that respect. The culture and leadership are weak, though, and changing that will help them all do better.

15 people like this
Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 24, 2017 at 10:35 am

Thank you for the diligence and persistence in reporting on this issue.

I'm concerned that some teachers and parents still don't understand the gravity of the problem--the insidious, deeply ingrained cultural practices counter to legal requirements--and that none of this might have come to light if it hadn't been exposed by a local news station. It's not just a clerical mistake. Loyal teachers and parents fail to comprehend that trust has been seriously eroded! Someone instituted and perpetuated these self-serving practices, and because of the repeated, historical failures, a clean slate is needed: remove the PAUSD principal and start active searches for courageous, moral persons to replace her and the current superintendent.

Instead of hemming and hawing and asking what to do, the school board should address the problem, and ask, for example:
1) Why wasn't UCP offered, despite active Title IX investigation into past incidents?
2) Why is the UCP log so pitifully incomplete? Do they need a specific person or persons to be trained how to fill in a simple log in no uncertain terms?
3) What would a reasonable person do?:
a) If a serious complaint or problem arose, notify your supervisor and inform involved team members, too. Why didn't the Asst. Principal report a subsequent related complaint to anyone else?
b) Why is there no follow-up, despite promises? Use a checklist! Hold regular meetings to track the status, clarify responsibilities, etc. Document everything in real time.
4) If staff feel that training doesn't translate into practice, use past incidents as case studies. What would you do? Compare responses to legal requirements and what was done it the past--examine what was done wrong and put measures in place to fix the problems.

Do something!

18 people like this
Posted by Lame excuses
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2017 at 11:24 am

If you are buying the "I didn't have appropriate training" excuse, please don't. That is usually the second excuse after "It isn't in my job description" that most union organizations and their incapable management uses to excuse their failures.

The only person who is a hero in all this is the vice principal that not one, but two but three times raised the issue complaining that the District management failed to start the UCP process. This is the *only* person involved that should remain in the District. For the remainer, the rest involved should be escorted to the parking lot tomorrow and terminated.

The PAUSD should have already filed a Complaint to the California Bar association against Dora Dome Web Link pictured here for her failure to follow the law. Have they? Have they examined why she tried to skirt the law? Was her sympathy to the perpetrator of the sexual assault? The newspaper needs to do a PRA for PAUSD and find out if they filed a written disciplinary complaint against the California Bar Association against this attorney. If they have not, you know that that they do not really care that Dora Dome did not provide them legal advice in accordance with the law in some misguided ploy to protect the perpetrator.

In reality, I do not believe for a second that the District personnel did not connect the dots between the subsequent bullying of the sexual assault victim and the sexual assault incident. Instead, it sounds like they purposely turned a blind eye to it in hopes that the victim would exit the District.

With no UCP process initiated and the victim leaving the District, there would be no trace that this ever happened in the first place.

If there was no second victim and KTVU had not broadcast the cover-up, the District's objectives to protect its employees over the safety of its students would have been achieved.

All involved in the cover-up and bungling, except for the one person mentioned above, need to be fired.

23 people like this
Posted by role modeling
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 24, 2017 at 11:34 am

To Kelli Hagen (who posted in the other thread) and other Paly teachers,

I appreciate Ms. Hagen clarifying that her concern extends to the young woman at the center of this case as well as her boss but I struggle with her logic.

Calling what happened "dropping the ball on proper documentation" doesn't capture the gravity of what Paly administrators did. [Portion removed.]

Parents have a right to be upset that school leaders, in words and in deed, are telling their children that this is appropriate behavior and then minimize, justify, and blame others when they are criticized for it.

If our kids did this, they would be called into Kim Diorio's or any one of those Assistant Principals who hid information's offices and suspended for cheating.

If they do this when they are adults, they would get fired or, worse yet, could go to jail for it.

I hope Paly teachers will take a few minutes of class on Monday to make it clear that Paly's administrators acted irresponsibly and teach our children that hiding information is not OK. Please do not call it "dropping the ball."

"There is no doubt in my mind that once these mistakes were brought to light...our team is both capable and willing to make steps toward correcting them."

I do appreciate that change takes time but, as someone else posted, sexual assault and harassment at Paly have been headline news for over 4 years now. Gunn handles these situations without many complaints or fanfare so the problem just doesn't appear to be PAUSD's training or the Title IX Coordinators who used to work here.

Parents aren't anti-teacher or staff. What they want is support when their children are in need and their children's teachers and school leaders to model ethical behavior. It is completely reasonable for parents to ask if 4 years has been long enough to wait for Paly to get its act together and now press the school board on whether the problem rests with Paly leaders' lack of conviction and/or ability to lead.

14 people like this
Posted by role modeling
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 24, 2017 at 1:12 pm

What Paly administrators did........

Cozen report on "School [Paly] administrators": "Based on training and practice, a common practice was to communicate by telephone or text message to avoid creating documentation that could potentially be publicly released."

Weekly on Cozen's presentation of its report: "Under Diorio's leadership, a 'longstanding' practice...communicated at principal and cabinet meetings -- continued of avoiding written documentation that could be released under a Public Records Act request, Gomez said. Staff members instead communicated about this case via text message and kept personal handwritten notes or notes on their iPhones...There was 'fear and the distrust that things would be released,' Gomez said, and 'also some concern about distrust of the board at various times.'"Web Link

Pull this apart:

It was intentional.

It happened "under Diorio's leadership."

It was "based on training" at "principal and cabinet meetings” as well as practice.

It was to hide information from the public and those whom staff distrusted. At times they distrusted the school board. The school board is their boss. It also impeded the investigations. The investigators (Cozen) said the lack of proper documentation made it difficult for them to determine what happened. The OCR probably had the same challenge when it investigated this case.

12 people like this
Posted by who did they trust?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 24, 2017 at 3:25 pm

It sounds like Paly admins didn't trust the District Office much either.

Assistant Principal 1 (Vicki Kim) did not "contemporaneously document" or record her interviews of the young woman or the young man, nor did she obtain the written statements that she required them to prepare. So the Title IX Coordinator literally only had Kim's word, verbal that that, to go on.

Paly "school administrators'...personal notes, timelines and other records were not shared contemporaneously with the Title IX Coordinator" Holly Wade either.

Was Paly going rogue on this?

Web Link

18 people like this
Posted by Eileen 1
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 24, 2017 at 3:51 pm

Eileen 1 is a registered user.

In order to believe that Dora Dome gave incorrect information to Holly Wade regarding this case, you must first believe that Holly Wade gave Ms. Dome all the relevant and truthful facts. Since Ms. Wade did not do any investigation herself, despite her role as the Title 9 compliance officer of the district, I have a hard time believing Ms. Dome was in full possession of all the information she needed to make the correct determination in this case.

Perhaps before attacking Ms. Dome a fuller understanding of what she was told by Ms. Wade is necessary.

18 people like this
Posted by Lame excuses
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 24, 2017 at 4:15 pm

The Office of Civil Rights resolution agreement with PAUSD specifically directed PAUSD to conduct investigations and follow Title IX.

This was the fallout after PAUSD failed to follow the law and its own procedures in eight separate sexual harassment or assault and misconduct cases involving students and staff since 2013.

Considering that the site personnel seemed to use text messages and phone calls to communicate under the radar in order to not create the "paper trail," it sounds to me like they were trying to suppress all information about this latest sexual assault so that the Office of Civil Rights and the newspaper would not find out about it.

If PAUSD is basically saying their contracted attorney Dora Dome is at fault for putting PAUSD in this situation, then PAUSD needs to file a complaint with Calbar against Dora Dome and Calbar needs to get the bottom of the he said, she said, she said, he said, she said, she said and sanction the attorney if the the attorney disregarded Federal law and Title IX.

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

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