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Efforts emerge to address sexual violence in Palo Alto school district

Superintendent, Paly parents launch initiatives

In a school district troubled by sexual misconduct among students and teachers, a district-level task force and a grassroots parent effort have launched to address the problem in Palo Alto's schools.

Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks announced at the last school board meeting on Oct. 10 that she will be leading a task force devoted to ending sexual assault and harassment in the district. The task force had been in the works under the leadership of former Superintendent Max McGee, she told the Weekly.

The group, named Responsive and Impactful Safe Environment (RISE), will be made up of high school students, parents and administrators as well as the district's Title IX compliance officer and representatives from the student services department, the high school wellness centers and the professional development department. The task force will start meeting biweekly by the end of this month, Hendricks said.

Three phases of work are planned: The first will focus on the district's ongoing compliance with a federal resolution agreement that outlines steps the district must take to address violations of anti-discrimination law Title IX; the second on finding prevention education — materials, curriculum, speakers and the like — for the high schools; and the third, identifying those materials for the middle schools. Hendricks said she aims to start the middle school work in January.

As a superintendent's task force, the group will serve in an advisory capacity to Hendricks, making recommendations to her that she can report to the board "as appropriate," according to board policy on representative and deliberative groups. The group has set up an email address (suptaskforce@pausd.org) and webpage for community members to provide feedback and ask questions.

A group of concerned Paly parents, meanwhile, started meeting this summer and are now working with school leadership, Stanford University and national experts to develop a prevention program for both Paly and Gunn High School.

One of those parents, John Fitton, said that while there is "due diligence" to be done on the part of the district to address missteps in following both policy and law, he wanted to find a way to go deeper: to tackle systemic cultural issues around sexual violence with teens, teachers and parents.

Fitton, now retired, spent 18 years as a counselor at colleges and universities, including at Southern Oregon University, where he helped launch a prevention program focused on men's role in preventing sexual violence. His daughter attends Paly and his son graduated last year.

"We've got a system with Title IX; we've got reporting processes, but that doesn't really educate about what causes these issues, what's expected of me (as a student)," Fitton told the Weekly. He hopes a prevention program would teach students to combat a "culture of silence" around sexual assault and to "empower students to give them tools so that they know how to navigate the issues."

He and two other parents, in partnership with Paly Principal Kim Diorio, have researched college prevention programs and met with experts. They're envisioning a program, tentatively called the Violence Prevention Initiative, that will include expert training and peer-to-peer mentoring.

They have met with Brenda Tracy, a national advocate and sexual-assault survivor working with college athletes, including the Stanford football team. They also met with Jackson Katz, the co-founder of national prevention and education program Mentors in Violence Prevention. (Diorio said she recently asked her staff to watch Katz's TED Talk on gender violence, in which he argues that it is "first and foremost" a men's rather than women's issue.)

They're also collaborating with two deans of students at Stanford and hope to bring student leaders and football players to Paly and Gunn to speak to students.

Student education and leadership will be a key feature of the program. Fitton said they plan to train interested students as leaders who can then teach and talk with their peers about how to navigate thorny issues such as consent, underage drinking, violence and harassment. Some students have already expressed an interest in participating and Diorio plans to meet with other student groups in the coming weeks.

Because sexual assault does not just happen on school campuses — and some parents and administrators argue that it is happening more frequently off campus at parties, in homes and elsewhere — the program will also draw in parents.

Of 50 Title IX-related complaints on the district's most recent Uniform Complaint Procedure log, including allegations of sexual assault, harassment and unwanted touching during last and this school year, 15 were reported as taking place off campus. This year, there have only been two off-campus reports: one sexual harassment report with "possible bullying/harassment on campus" and another report with both on- and off-campus incidences at JLS Middle School, according to the log.

The district is required under Title IX to respond to incidences that happen off campus but impact students' educational environment at school.

The grassroots group is also planning presentations and programs for teachers, staff and sports coaches.

Diorio said the program will not be a "one-and-done" but a strategic, sustained effort.

"It would have been easy for us to schedule a guest speaker to come in and do an assembly," she said. "That's not the right way to do this."

Along with the two parents Fitton is working with, Brandi Walters and Tim Hmelar (who has worked with East Bay youth on violence prevention issues) Fitton said they represent about two dozen other Paly families who have given them input on this issue. They have also sought feedback from parent teacher associations and the Paly Sports Boosters, which raises funds for athletics.

In the age of Brock Turner, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, Fitton said he's hopeful that Palo Alto will, at its own scale, be a part of a shift in the way people talk about and respond to sexual violence and harassment.

They hope to launch the prevention program in January.

For immediate in-person crisis assistance and counseling services, contact the YWCA of Silicon Valley's 24-hour Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Support Line at 800-572-2782. For more information, go to ywca-sv.org.

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.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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23 people like this
Posted by Mom of little ones
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 19, 2017 at 2:28 pm

Mom of little ones is a registered user.

This is fantastic - a comprehensive approach to solving a problem that is national as well as local. This is a cultural issue and we need to educate everyone - school staff, students, parents, and community members.
Thank you to these parents for getting the ball rolling and to our administration for giving it the support it needs to be successful!

18 people like this
Posted by Cassandra
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 19, 2017 at 3:13 pm

This sounds great. My only concern is that there will be no sustainability unless the district is also committed to ending the coverup culture.

7 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2017 at 8:33 pm

Thank you - this is wonderful.
Great to see actions!

8 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2017 at 8:35 pm

Samuel L. is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

33 people like this
Posted by Kathy Jordan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 19, 2017 at 10:13 pm

When you rely on the people who caused the problem, to fix the problem, the problem doesn't get fixed.

Hope you will find other partners committed to combating sexual harassment to work with so your efforts will not go to waste.

Administrators who didn't take steps to protect our children would not be the first choice as a partner, and working along side them does a disservice to those they didn't care for, which includes the Paly student body.

18 people like this
Posted by Susie W
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 20, 2017 at 6:27 am

Two things: If you are committed to prevention, this must start in elementary school. Preventing Sexual Harrassment lessons must be introduced there and then followed up in the middle and high schools. Secondly, school counselors need to be on the Superintendent’s committee. They are uniquely qualified to do this kind of work and know more about what is truly going on with the kids. P.S. How about spending the money to put counselors in every elementary school?

29 people like this
Posted by Kathy Jordan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 20, 2017 at 7:44 am

How do you think the victims' families will feel about parents working with Kim Diorio, who, according to the Cozen report, didn't follow through on the required steps to protect our students on campus? How do you think they would feel? Perhaps there would be other folks to work with who are serious about combating sexual harassment.

27 people like this
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 20, 2017 at 9:03 am

Michele Dauber is a registered user.

I'm not sure which "deans" at Stanford are part of this but I can tell you based on personal experience that Stanford is not a model of anything that anyone would want to emulate at this time. Not a model of prevention, though we may get there, and certainly not a model in its football (or athletics) program.

The collaboration with Brenda Tracy, while perhaps beneficial (too early to tell) was done in response to this PR catastrophe:

Web Link

Stanford currently has no evidence based prevention programming in wide use. It is piloting an evidence based program soon. We will know more later about results. Stanford is still in the learning stages itself. It is still responding to crises of its own making, ricocheting frantically from one self-imposed calamity to another. There are many lawyers who can attest to just how difficult it is for survivors at Stanford. It is not a model of anything. Paly is in many ways better positioned to handle this situation than Stanford, given that Paly at least received clear guidance from OCR and Stanford has managed to use its resources to gum up its many OCR complaints and will probably end up getting an A from Trump University so to speak as a result.

Just because something is happening at Stanford does not mean that it is "the best" though I know that there is a tendency to fetishize Stanford's ranking and believe that it is always right or at the top. In the area of campus rape, elite schools are often the least progressive because the toxic combination of money, arrogance, ties to the elite, and concerns over reputation mean that the needs of survivors are consistently overlooked and their rights violated.

8 people like this
Posted by More than one school
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 20, 2017 at 11:57 am

@ Susie W:

Too late...no counselors in elementary school. Whatever money we might've had is spent on inadvertent raises for all.

Although I would normally applaud this effort, our time, energy, and money would be better spent on cleaning up our district. McGee's departure almost seems like a sacrificial lamb. More need to go.

This is merely one symptom. There's lots more underneath before we're cured of the disease.

11 people like this
Posted by Kathy, it's not your money
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 21, 2017 at 9:55 am


Thank you, but we have heard this already. You want the board of education to fire all administrators, because they are heartless bureaucrats who don't care about children. Amd you want to continue the revolving door policy of administrator turnover, so we are sure to have administrators who never get to understand our children and school culture. [Portion removed.]

This article highlights a positive development. And we can all help to make this effort better. Thank you to those three parents listed in article and Mrs Dauber for their help.

[Portion removed.]

24 people like this
Posted by Board Watcher
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2017 at 10:49 am

The above posts reminds me of the ones blaming Dauber (or whoever) for the OCR investigations. AFTER which, PALY still had 3 teachers and administrators removed (one now in jail) for sexual harassment and assault. "Move on?" Really?

We can sweep it under the carpet ("move forward!" "be constructive!" "stop dwelling on the past!") or we can face it and deal with it, including the personnel actions, if any, that may be needed. Investigations are still ongoing; the district hasn't responded to PRA requests; admins have been told "not to talk to anyone."

That's the textbook recipe for maintaining a rotten culture of silence and cover-up. Which is what they've done before until the next expose (in the Weekly, from OCR, in the Verde, on KTVU) comes and bites them - which by the way means students have been harmed.

So I thank the people who stand up, demand the truth, and won't stop. Good for them. Yes, it costs money, sorry. If the district followed the law, protected the kids, and did their jobs, it would have been a lot cheaper. Don't blame the whistle blower - this money was spent for us by the staff - especially the most senior ones - who didn't do their jobs.

9 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 22, 2017 at 11:59 pm

Rebecca Eisenberg is a registered user.

Dear Board Watcher:

Thank you. My friend Kathy just informed me that the person posting anonymously as "Kathy, It's Not Your Money" had slandered me for standing up on behalf of the victims of sexual assault, and demanding that the PAUSD follow the law by providing access to safe and appropriate education for ALL students regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, nationality and socio-economic status, as mandated by federal, state and local law. As it turns out, legal requirements are very low, so my demands should not be considered unreasonable. Why shouldn't we all demand that the PAUSD comply with the law? Both the US DOJ's Office of Civil Rights and the private law firm hired by the School Board proved in official government documents and reports that the PAUSD has been grossly out of compliance for years -- detailing the many acts of non-compliance and providing suggestions (in the case of the Cozen report) and legal mandates (in the case of the United States Dept of Justice settlement agreement) of specific ways that the PAUSD needs to change in order to comply with the very minimum requirements of the law.

Why would anyone take an opposing view to my argument that we need to follow the law? And why would anyone object to my standing up at a few board meetings to explain in plain English to the Board how best to follow the law? Given that I am a licensed attorney with 25 years of experience, I am extremely qualified to help the district understand how to comply with the law.

As to this task force, I actually have been asking the School Board -- through meetings with certain individuals on the Board and also through emails -- to do this very thing, so I support this initiative. My argument from Day One has been that the current approach of the PAUSD towards compliance has been 100% wrong. While the PAUSD has viewed legal compliance as an impediment to student and teacher success, if they understood the goals and substance of the law, they would correct their perspective to one that understands that safe and equitable access to education profounds IMPROVES the quality of learning and teaching for students and teachers respectively.

Studies show that task forces are an effective tool to craft solutions that all stakeholders (students, teachers, administrators, staff, parents, community members) believe and embrace. When task forces craft solutions collaboratively, stakeholders feel a sense of buy-in and ownership that they otherwise lack in the context of poorly explained top-down authoritarian rule direction. Plus, the rule that task forces enact almost always go FAR BEYOND the requirements of the law, which as I mentioned above, are merely minimal.

In sum, I applaud the Interim Superintendent for taking this HUGE step -- a step that should have been taken years ago!!! -- to involve our community of students, faculty, staff and parents, in creating a new and Best Practices solution to keep all students safe. Thank you, Karen Hendricks, for a great first act out of the gate!

As to the involvement of Kim Diorio, I must admit I am confused. Anyone who reads the Cozen Report and the Dept of Justice Letter of Findings can see the extreme and harmful ways that Ms. Diorio violated the legal rights of students and families. This was documented by our federal government and by our very own school district Board of Supervisors, through the law firm it paid to represent them. And the thing about these legal violations is that they led to very real and life-destroying harm to *children* -- our community's children! The laws are in place to protect children, and when Ms. Diorio failed to follow the laws, young girls were raped. These sexual assaults are documented in official documents released by our local and federal government, so it is irrational to consider the matter anything but established in fact.

These legal violations -- and consequent harm -- are some of the reasons that Holly Wade and Max McGee are no longer at the District. Certainly, I respect that Kim Diorio is beloved by teachers and by many students, and undoubtedly she must have tons of positive things going for her, as well as many strengths and skills. I don't question any of that. But at the end of the day, good people sometimes make terrible choices that lead to huge and irreversible harm, and that is what happened at Paly. I think it is important that our children know that there are consequences to their -- and our --
actions. In this case, I am not aware of any consequences that Ms. Diorio experienced (although the consequences to the victims are well-documented and known). At very best, failing to remedy the leadership issue is not a standard human resources and employment law practice. We deserve to have confidence that our children will be safe, and it never is a wise strategy to rely on the people who caused the problem, to fix the problems they caused.

Here are links to the documents I mention above. Before continuing to defame and/or lambast me, Kathy, or Keith, I urge you to investigate the FACTS that were found as the result of years of official, unbiased, well-documented investigation:

United States Justice Department Office of Civil Rights Letter of Findings regarding the PAUSD: Web Link

Cozen O'Connor External Report re: District Response to Title IX:
Web Link

In the meantime, I hope that my fellow parents and community members can trust that I am standing up and doing this for YOU and for your -- and my -- children. I profoundly believe that this world belongs to them, and our greatest duty is to protect them and keep them safe. Please join me in advocating on their behalf.

2 people like this
Posted by meh
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 23, 2017 at 8:49 am

I don't know. Seems like Title nine just blurs things for victims and sets victims up for "misunderstandings" and perhaps judgements made by nonprofessionals in documenting comments that just weaken any possible justice. Not sure. I think call a lawyer first, then the police, worry about title nine last. Not sure what thoughts are out there about this. Consequences are the best prevention.

9 people like this
Posted by Green Acres parent
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 23, 2017 at 11:39 am

Thank you Kathy and Rebecca for all your efforts to protect our children. I hope our interim superintendent has the courage to get rid of administrators who messed up before she came to Palo Alto.

4 people like this
Posted by Access
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 23, 2017 at 1:29 pm

@meh, victims can call whoever they like. The school is obligated to follow Title IX once they are aware of a potential incident. The goal of Title IX is not to mete out "justice" - it is to make sure schools provide access to education. In the cases in Palo Alto, I'm not aware of any complaints that perpetrators weren't "punished" enough; the problem is that the rights of the victims weren't protected - i.e., they didn't feel safe at school and in some cases, had to leave.

Like this comment
Posted by meh
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 24, 2017 at 12:16 pm

@ access. I guess the victims were punished enough. Title nine did not help them and I do not think it should ever be considered as anything but a formality for schools to deal with not victims seeking safety in a timely manner.

7 people like this
Posted by Censored
a resident of Atherton
on Oct 25, 2017 at 8:48 pm

Perhaps not the best topic to post this, but the purveyors of "quality journalism" at Palo Alto online for some unclear reason censored my original post starting a new topic, so here is a description of another crime:

Three Jordan Middle School boys (12 years old) were walking east on the sidewalk of Dana Avenue, east of Center Drive on Friday evening 10/20/17 around 8:40pm when 2 people in a car driving east on Dana Avenue confronted them by yelling out of window of the car. When the young boys ran, the perpetrators chased them to Ashby Drive, got out of their car, and asked them if they had any money, or smartphones. When the boys said no, one of the perpetrators patted their pockets, and then demanded in an intimidating and aggressive manner that one of the boys take off his Adidas "NMD" shoes. The perpetrators left the scene with the shoes. This incident has been reported to the police.

Description of person involved – Hair: Dark and curly, Top: Red hooded sweatshirt, Age: ~18, Build: 5' 10" thin, Race: Hispanic, Sex: Male

Description of person involved – Hair: Dark, Top: Grey sweatshirt, Bottom: Jeans, Age: ~18, Build: 5' 7" thin, Race: Hispanic, Sex: Male, Other details: Gold chain

Description of vehicle involved – Color: Dark (possibly silver), Year: 2000 or newer, Type: 4 door sedan, Other details: East on Dana Avenue

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