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.