What began as an effort by Palo Alto High School Principal Kim Diorio to block the public release of a letter of discipline issued to her by the school district in January over her handling of a sexual assault case at the school in 2016 has now, with her sudden release of the documents herself on Wednesday evening, turned into an unprecedented public conflict between Diorio and her district office superiors and their predecessors.
The letters of reprimand issued to Diorio and Gunn High School Principal Kathie Laurence, who served as a Paly assistant principal under Diorio when the assault occurred, were not unexpected.
Both the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and an outside law firm, Cozen O'Connor, conducted extensive investigations into sexual harassment and assault incidents on the campus and issued reports that concluded both school and district officials failed to follow the law and district policies in responding to them.
The OCR report, which summarized a years-long investigation that started in 2013 and looked at how both Paly and Gunn had handled numerous incidents, sharply criticized Diorio's failure as assistant principal to report to district officials harassment by then-Principal Phil Winston. She kept a log of such conduct over a period of three years but did not bring it to district administrators until days before Winston resigned his position citing health problems in June 2013.
The Cozen O'Connor report, which only examined how school and district administrators responded to a student's complaint of being sexually assaulted in a campus bathroom in October 2016, detailed both successes and failures. It made abundantly clear that Diorio and her assistant principals, including Laurence, made numerous serious mistakes, as did former Superintendent Max McGee and Associate Superintendent Holly Wade.
As the failures became well-documented, and with more expected to be revealed soon with the conclusions of another investigation into a 2015 incident at Paly, the Board of Education has been in the difficult position of having numerous senior administrators, including its superintendent, who failed to perform their responsibilities and who had violated federal, state and district laws or policies. Over the last several months, in many closed sessions noticed as either "evaluation of superintendent" or "employee discipline," the board has acted to address the failures.
The resignations of McGee, Wade and other senior administrators, the dismissal of the district's two primary law firms and the issuance of letters of reprimand to Diorio and Laurence, while stretched out over too long a period, are all part of the school board finally doing its job of holding employees accountable and implementing appropriate remedies.
There are no winners or heroes to be found in how these matters were handled and plenty of blame to go around. But no matter how much Paly staff, students and parents like and value Kim Diorio and other administrators at the school, the mistakes made were indisputable and there is nothing unfair or inappropriate about disciplinary letters being issued.
And while there are some, as there were in the Winston, Kevin Sharp and other cases, who believe the mistakes made by these individuals should be handled out of the public eye because of damage to the school district's reputation, the sunshine on these problems actually strengthens our district, as it does any institution that acknowledges its mistakes and fixes them.
That's why Diorio's seven-page response to the two-page letter of reprimand is so disappointing and in all likelihood signals her intention to resign. Instead of acknowledging her well-documented mistakes, she shifts blame to Wade, McGee, a district lawyer and others. They deserve their share of the responsibility, but thankfully they are also all now gone, partially as a result of their repeated mistakes.
In many ways, Diorio has been a tragic figure in all this. She was a victim herself of inappropriate conduct by her popular boss, Winston, and quietly chronicled incidents reported to her by other staff members about Winston. Her accounts ultimately enabled the district to terminate Winston, but her delay in reporting him put students and staff at continuing risk.
After becoming principal, Diorio repeatedly pleaded with the district, to no avail, to remove former English teacher Kevin Sharp from the classroom after she learned of allegations that he was in an inappropriate relationship with a recently graduated student.
But she and Laurence's handling of the 2016 sexual assault case shows a lack of understanding of their individual and independent obligations as school officials to follow the law and established policies. We hope that what is emerging from the sad rubble of the last five years is a new culture of accountability and transparency at all levels of the school district, with the school board and new superintendent leading the way. The days of burying bad news to protect the Palo Alto "brand" should be forever put to rest. There is too much good about the district to be ashamed to address what is bad.