A new system for reporting and tracking reports of discrimination, harassment and bullying is providing these issues higher visibility across the Palo Alto school district. It's capturing everything from the benign -- an elementary school student slapping another student's bottom during a game of tag, for example -- to potential sex crimes. No matter the nature of the offense, cases logged in this system are being formally investigated and monitored by the district's Title IX compliance officer.
This system and other changes put in place in the wake of community uproar this spring over how the district handled a Palo Alto High School sexual-assault case are evidence of progress on issues that have been entrenched for years, said John DiPaolo, the district's interim Title IX compliance officer. But there is still much work to be done, he said, particularly around sexual violence.
"I think that everyone agrees there's too much sexual misconduct (and) sexual harassment in the schools," he said in a recent interview with the Weekly, shortly after exiting the role. "I think that the whole district is responding to that reality. I also think that the response is at this point genuine and very meaningful."
DiPaolo, an education attorney and Obama administration appointee who worked in the U.S. Department of Education for six years, was hired in response to concerns over how the district handled the Paly case, in which a male junior reportedly forced a female freshman to perform oral sex in a campus bathroom. A law firm later found that both district and Paly administrators failed to comply with state and federal law, as well as district policy. The case revealed persistent gaps in how the district responds to not only sexual harassment but other forms of discrimination and bullying.
Under DiPaolo's leadership, the district has launched this new system for tracking complaints, more of which are coming in than in years past. There are more than 80 complaints from this school year alone as of Nov. 17, up from 57 as of Oct. 24.
At this time last year, there were five complaints in the Uniform Complaint Procedure log -- the old system for tracking discrimination allegations, DiPaolo said. The new log is also now posted regularly on the district website; previously, it was only accessible in response to individual Public Records Act requests.
The database, called "Roots," is a repurposed version of the system the district already uses to track IT issues and Public Records Act requests. For this purpose, it allows principals and assistant principals to file detailed reports -- including when an incident happened, when it was reported, if it happened on- or off-campus, the nature of the allegations, attaching any relevant documents -- that are immediately sent to DiPaolo. The system is for any reports of discrimination based on sex, race, disability, age or religion.
DiPaolo can ask questions and provide feedback to the person who filed the report, communication that's saved in the database. The report can later be updated with more information, such as if a school puts interim measures in place.
The database allows the district to analyze the reports "at a more aggregate level," looking for patterns, frequency and if incidences are happening more at a particular location, for example, DiPaolo said.
The district is also now using Roots to automatically populate its log of Uniform Complaint Procedure investigations, eliminating the possibility of a case somehow getting lost.
The system is providing a new level of accountability in the district, DiPaolo said.
He thinks the high number of reports illustrates a new level of awareness in the district about the importance of these issues. There's also an increased awareness among students and parents, he said. Families of students who are victims and those accused are now coming in with lawyers, which wasn't happening when he first arrived.
"The district is going to be under a lot of pressure from both sides to go by the book, to be fair," DiPaolo said said.
As the district seeks to meet the federally required level of compliance, some administrators are struggling to adjust to the amount of time it's taking to properly document, investigate and address potential Title IX issues, DiPaolo said. The district has also imposed new requirements for handling less serious cases, such as sending outcome letters to the involved parties that summarize what happened and what the school did in response.
At the elementary schools, administrators are struggling to draw a line between what might be described as "kids being kids" and inappropriate behavior that merits a formal investigation, DiPaolo said. The new complaints log shows incidents at the elementary schools like inappropriate exposure, name calling, inappropriate touching and "inappropriate looking in bathroom."
DiPaolo said he's urging administrators to view these incidents as meriting a "both, and" rather than an "either, or" response.
"The fact that you have to log it in and clearly determine what happened and send a letter home to parents and say, 'If you think that there's sexual harassment, that you're unsatisfied, you can file a complaint' ... you can do all those things and still address this issue properly as you want to as an educator," he said.
"I think last year there were a lot of good intentions but not a lot of understanding of everything Title IX requires," DiPaolo said. "We are now at the phase where people (administrators and staff) need to put what they have been presented with into practice, which means there is still a lot of learning that needs to happen before the practice is consistent and at the level we want."
DiPaolo said the district needs to seriously consider allocating more resources to Title IX issues, including making the compliance office a two-person department. Though conducting Title IX investigations wasn't part of the original job description, DiPaolo expected he'd be able to do more than he was. Counseling administrators on how to respond to specific cases has instead taken up the bulk of his time. Outside investigators are currently examining 12 reports, according to DiPaolo.
The district did recently hire a full-time replacement for DiPaolo -- Megan Farrell, a consultant with experience in law, higher education and Title IX.
DiPaolo has spent years overseeing Title IX compliance for the federal government but had not worked for a school district before in this capacity. The Office for Civil Rights' focus has primarily been on colleges and universities, meaning K-12 schools are still far behind when it comes to understanding the law. He suspects Palo Alto Unified is not an anomaly when it comes to its failures to properly address sexual misconduct. He said he has "no reason to believe" there is more sexual misconduct at Palo Alto Unified than is typical for K-12 school districts, and that he has "definitely seen worse."
"I don't have hard data on it, but my expectation, my hypothesis is that Palo Alto's issues would be the issues of almost any district if you took the kind of close look that we've taken here," DiPaolo said.
What sets Palo Alto Unified apart, however, is that it's been under close federal scrutiny for years for its handling of sexual violence and harassment. The Office for Civil Rights recently concluded a yearslong investigation into numerous cases involving students, teachers and in one case a principal at both Paly and Gunn High School, finding multiple Title IX violations stretching back to 2013.
This makes the district's current state "more problematic," DiPaolo said.
"That's part of why the burden on us to get better is, I think, higher," he added.
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.