News

Editorial: Blame to go around

In response to letter of reprimand, Paly principal turns table on the district

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.

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Comments

16 people like this
Posted by Broken System
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 7:00 am

“A new culture of accountability and transparency “

Wishful thinking.

But probably not. There is no change in the system that continues to generate these problems.


15 people like this
Posted by PalyPop
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 9:11 am

For a community that spits out principals every three years, it's amazing that this one lasted five years. We need board members who are committed to pushing out principals after no more than three years. And given the new precedent that our President has set, maybe we should oust them after 6-12 months.

But I am highly confident that this, unlike the last many departures, will absolutely do the trick! Think of it this way, the only principal or superintendent crazy enough to step into a community like this must be rockhard and politically seasoned. They will have such a highly attuned sense of self-preservation, that they will play the board and the fringe parents like a fiddle. And they won't be burdened by any emotional connection with the students. What we need, and what we are going to get is a real Frank Underwood. Huzzah!

[Portion removed.]


31 people like this
Posted by Broken System
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 9:21 am

I disagree.

We keep searching for heroes to take such-and-such role. Then they get tripped up on a broken system.

Far better would be to build a system with clear delineation of responsibility, authority for decision making and accountability, with escalation when you disagree.

Defined and known up front.

In other words design a job that a reasonably skilled Principal can succeed. With BOTH support and oversight from above.

Or rather, exactly everything we don’t have.

Fix the broken system and stop the hero worship.


23 people like this
Posted by kids
a resident of another community
on Mar 9, 2018 at 9:48 am

kids is a registered user.

I have no opinion about the painful situation that has bled from one year to the next. I do want to beg all the adults to try to look at the seniors at PALY and realize how stressful and exciting this month is for them with college acceptances and denials coming in. The school needs to honor these kids that have been working so hard for this and make sure they are the most important thing at the school these last few months. Losing their principal now and taking the focus off the students again and again every spring will make them all want to leave. It is like inviting people over for a party or dinner and then arguing in front of them while they watch. Doing to this every spring and fall for years has made them feel like unwelcome guests that need to skulk out the back door quietly instead of proud, important and a dignified part of a family that should be important enough to exclude from year and two year scandals and conflicts. I would love to adults will be more focused on the acitivities and go to plays, concerts, sporting events, math olympiads, swim meets, robotics etc and start noticing the treasures they have and treat them much better. If the administrators would go to more of these events instead of taking polls or going to conduct meetings, they would see what needs to be seen to be good leaders. Spend the time , watch a few minutes of the golf practices, know their names and actually go to a meet. Go to the play and swing dance next week and talk to families and treat yourselves to being around awesome kids coaches and teachers that have been quietly working every day to give the kids experiences that will make them great adults and good leaders. board members too. go to a track meet, prom, badminton practice speech and debate meeting.....take a juggling lesson go to a tutoring center. Make this current problem 1/100th of what you see and know about PALY.


4 people like this
Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2018 at 10:30 am

cvvhrn is a registered user.

just as a side note, as a parent of a child At Paly, the Principal just sent out a letter to students and staff indicating she will resign at the end of the school year.


28 people like this
Posted by Credential Board
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 9, 2018 at 10:46 am

Credential Board is a registered user.

The issues are being discussed in public because they involve sexual assault on students in a public school. The public wants it to stop.

Internal and private systems failed to protect children at school. Like it or not, this is public.

Diorio knows she is a public official. By releasing her response to:

"Paly's student newspaper, The Campanile, and student online news site, The Paly Voice,"

Dioro did it in a manner she knew would quickly go public, and involved her own high school students to the maximum degree possible. It says volumes about an inability to work with her own management.

The tone contains numerous "hero" references to her own accomplishments, understandable since it is a defense of her actions. It also contains the implication the reprimand of her own performance is really an attack of the staff at the school she leads, and she is writing a response to protect them. That is not the response of a leader. She needs to take responsibly. She was in charge of her staff.

These tactics by District employees are well known to families who have dealt with Special Education, District's attorney's past and present, Counseling, and any type of complaint.

The seeds of this were sown when the Board approved a District reorganization in June, 2013. Web Link
With an eye for more effective, responsive and efficient district operations, the Palo Alto school board is being asked to approve promotions for several existing staff members, as well as create new high-level leadership positions.
The public rightly wants to know how this happens to prevent it from happening again.


8 people like this
Posted by Credential Board
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 9, 2018 at 11:03 am

Credential Board is a registered user.

Above post was missing part of text. Was trying to say this is a quote from the Palo Alto Online article about the purpose of the 2013 reorganization -

Web Link
"With an eye for more effective, responsive and efficient district operations, the Palo Alto school board is being asked to approve promotions for several existing staff members, as well as create new high-level leadership positions."

Dr. Holly Wade was given inordinate amount of power and control over all investigations, special education, counseling, and investigating complaints about herself and her staff. This was despite the original OCR findings about allowing bullying of children so strong they could not attend school.

The Superintendent and Board also insisted Dr. Wade had to continue to have her own law firm, which she would control, ignoring public complaints about problems with the firm.

The reorganization was done very quickly and quietly after the school year had ended, when few parents or public stake holders could comment. The Board told the Superintendent to hire staff before the reorganizations and job promotions were approved. He posted jobs for only one week and only to internal candidates, so only 1 person could apply, then said she had to be hired. A similar situation occurred with hiring of other contractors and employees as a result of the reorganization. Most of them are gone now.

All this sent a clear message to every Administrator in the District that Dr. Wade was the Board's and Superintendent Dream Employee. She controlled careers and had attorneys. Staff better do whatever she and her lawyers said, even if it was not in the best interest of children or the school, even if it defied common sense for keeping children safe. In the end, the public sees that each employee made choices, and holds them responsible for their individual choices.

My only hope is some employees and Administrators can look upon their conduct of blindly supporting Wade, of ignoring the extensive complaints about the attorneys and their tactics, and their use of legal and manipulative tactics against students and families in pain and see it didn't work. Supporting leaders and doing whatever they said, even if immoral, did not work. Eventually, the public holds staff individually responsible for their own choices and conduct.


33 people like this
Posted by Perspective
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2018 at 11:20 am

As a parent of a Paly graduate I thank the Weekly for following the story.

In looking for a new Principal we need the qualities of an organized and highly effective executive not a politician, which is what I think Ms Diorio ultimately was.

My observations are that the failures in processes at Paly were evident long before the sexual assault problems and despite appeals for change, Diorio's leadership was not equipped to handle it.

The next Principal needs to have a track record in running an organization, with hard set standards for impeccable processes.


41 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2018 at 11:48 am

I am pretty confused by the following statement from the editorial:

"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."

As described in the news stories, if I understand the correctly, Diorio followed the directives of Dr. Wade and the various legal counsels. Since these are the people who specialize in the fine legal points involved, that sounds appropriate. Surely, Diorio would have been liable if she had gone against that expert and legal advice?

As for the constant calls for "transparency" -- you can't have complete transparency, because of student and student-family privacy rights. Palo Alto Online (etc) should understand that for reasons of privacy, you, and we, the public, don't have the right to know everything. For that reason, you, the press, we, the public, and even the principal, have to rely on the designated experts and the legal counsel to be the focal point of any investigation of incidents like this. For that reason, I don't understand the board's criticism of Diorio as contained in the letter, and, your editorial.

Perhaps we could use an article explaining as clearly as possible to us non-lawyers out here exactly what the individual and independent obligations of school teachers and administrators are in these various situations.


20 people like this
Posted by Evan Lurie
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2018 at 12:38 pm

People in stone houses should not throw glass.

When the Weekly publishes this as a complete sentence in their editorial--
"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."--their grasp of composition and copy editing impugns their authority. Zeal to criticize everyone else has polluted this community. The students in this community deserve better from every one of us. Before we point fingers at the district or school sites, we would all be better served by gazing in the mirror.


16 people like this
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2018 at 2:12 pm

The tragic thread that runs throughout this and other sorry situations that the schools and district finds themselves in is a failure to place the interests of the students in the center. Too often individuals and institutions act to preserve their own interests. At the start and end of the day, we are all here for the sake of the students/children.


33 people like this
Posted by Rebecca Eisenberg
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 9, 2018 at 3:44 pm

I thank the Weekly for this well-written, well-argued editorial. I agree with all you wrote -- and have used almost exactly the same words on several occasions in comments I made at school board meetings, emails I sent to the school board, and responses I posted here.

What I think so often gets lost -- and is shown by the divisiveness in the comments here -- is that no one person ever is all good or all bad. It is indisputable that Kim Diorio had lots of things going for her, and undeniable that she too was a victim in some ways of her circumstances, as your editorial aptly stated. Nonetheless, Ms. Diorio made numerous serious violations of federal, state, and local law, and as a direct consequence of those legal violations, children were hurt.

I think it is very unlikely that any individual in the level of leadership and management at a for-profit or non-profit organization would have been allowed to continue in their positions after something as factually determinative and damning as the Cozen Report was released. Only in the surreal world of the PAUSD would one of the most implicated school administrators involved in these egregious (Cozen words) legal violations receive a promotion after the facts became known, which -- despite the vocal protests to the contrary -- the facts truly are. When a person in authority's unlawful choices harm others, it is appropriate for the person in authority to step down.

That said, I worry that replacing administrators and principals with new leaders won't be enough to cause the changes this district really needs. "Credential Board" describes some of these problems with great accuracy.

At the end of the day, the District continues to respond to each and every valid complaint of problems in the same way: Denial of the problem. The District continues to act -- in **every** choice it makes -- as if admitting the existence of any problem will cause liability.

Ironically, it is this continual DENIAL of problems -- and the consequent failure to act -- that is creating the liability. As long as the Board and the top administration - including the school principals -- continue their strategy of deny and conceal unless forced to respond and share, things will only get worse instead of better.

A good piece of low hanging fruit that could mend some of these fences between the community and District now is for the Board to direct the District to respond to all of the outstanding CPRA requests -- in digital format. As more facts about the mishandling of the sexual assaults emerge, the public is entitled to information about what exactly the administration and other leaders knew, and what was done in response. The Brown Act and Public Records Acts were passed to prevent these very problems that are inevitable consequences of the PAUSD's entrenched culture of secrecy.

Of course, no law -- not the Brown Act, Title IX, the California Public Records Act, IDEA, ADA or otherwise -- ever can serve its purpose if the people whose job it is to enforce those laws choose to ignore the laws instead.

Only with sunshine and transparency will we have any chance at seeing the prospect of bluer skies ahead, and I know we all hope for better days for our children.


15 people like this
Posted by 2nd grader student at ohlone
a resident of Ohlone School
on Mar 9, 2018 at 6:56 pm

"nowadays, it is hard to raise good parents. it is even harder to raise law abiding school administrators and principals."


2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2018 at 7:20 pm

It really concerns me that PAUSD is not able to retain secondary principals, administrators at schools and Churchill and superintendents. It bothers me because there are always "reasons" why they leave, but I wonder if some of the resignations are due to something other than the public get to hear.

Should we always be looking for so many senior staff each year? How does PAUSD retention compare with other school districts?


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

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