Palo Alto Unified's new Title IX coordinator described to the school board Tuesday night a school district working diligently to address past failures to comply with law and policy in its handling of sexual misconduct and discrimination, but still struggling to meet legal requirements for timely investigations and proper documentation.
Megan Farrell, who was hired this fall as the district's first full-time Title IX coordinator, asked the board to consider assigning an administrator to work in her office as a full-time investigator to support staff. Attempts to hire an external investigator have been unsuccessful, she said.
"I'd like to see us do very good investigations that people feel comfortable with, that are very well documented and that are done within 60 days," she said, referring to the legally required timeline. "I think the only way to do that is to have more support."
Farrell's report came almost exactly one year after the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released a letter of findings detailing how the district violated federal anti-discrimination law Title IX, state law and local policy in its handling of multiple sexual-misconduct cases at its high schools since 2013. Just two months later, the public disclosure of a 2016 campus sexual assault report at Palo Alto High School would spark upheaval and concern in the community that the district was still failing to meet its legal obligations, despite the years of federal scrutiny.
She said she spends much of her time taking questions from administrators — in phone calls before school starts in the morning, in evenings and throughout the day on the phone and in person — about how to respond to incidents on their campuses. Administrators have improved, she said, in more consistently meeting their legal obligation to inform students and parents who report alleged misconduct of their right to file a complaint under the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), the district's process for handling discrimination complaints.
The district still lacks standard procedures, however, with staff using different investigative practices, including forms "that they developed themselves or have been given by investigators," Farrell said. Some staff document investigations but don't include it in the proper file, she said. An external law firm's examination of the district's handling of the 2016 sexual-assault report found inconsistent and even purposeful avoidance of documentation.
The Title IX office is also working to check in more frequently on schools' investigations to make sure they are completed within 60 days, Farrell said.
"Investigations can really take over your workload," she said.
The district hired a part-time administrative support person for the Title IX office in February to help monitor investigations, check reports for accuracy and "proactively suggest and implement process improvements," among other job responsibilities.
The district is planning an upcoming Title IX investigation "bootcamp" with Project IX, a nonprofit that provides violence-prevention training to under-resourced schools.
A series of statistics Farrell presented Tuesday night shed light on reported misconduct across the district.
The district has logged 148 reports of alleged discrimination, including sexual assault, harassment, bullying and racial incidents both on and off campus, since the district launched in August a new internal system for documenting these reports. Of those, 36 cases resulted in the filing of a Uniform Complaint Procedure. Just over half of those have been resolved, Farrell said, with 17 still pending.
The majority of incidents stem from the elementary schools (40 percent) and high schools (38 percent), with only 20 percent from the middle schools. The elementary reports are mostly "what I believe our educators would often refer to as developmentally appropriate behavior," Farrell said, such as a student touching another student's bottom or peeking under the bathroom stall at another student. She said elementary parents, when informed of their right to file a complaint under the UCP in such cases, often decline. Out of 58 elementary complaints, only four resulted in a formal complaint, compared to 11 at the middle schools and 21 at the high schools.
She suggested that the dip in overall reports at the middle schools is due to students of that age feeling "reticent" to report for fear of potential social implications. The number of reports should be higher, she said, given national statistics that show bullying increases in middle school.
Board members were largely encouraged by the district's heightened focus on compliance.
"One of the best things this board has done has been to engage with this problem of non-compliance, to engage with the Office for Civil Rights to reach a resolution agreement, to undertake the investigations into the district's performance on this, to staff this (Title IX) office … it's clearly paying off," said board President Ken Dauber, who in the past has been a vocal critic of the district's response to sexual violence and discrimination. "I think the community can take a lot of confidence in what it's seeing."
Only one trustee, Terry Godfrey, addressed Farrell's request for additional Title IX personnel directly with support. Godfrey described last spring's events as a "wake-up call" for the need for a dedicated Title IX coordinator who can focus on compliance full time.
Struck by Farrell's comments on documentation, Trustee Todd Collins asked interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks to "clearly and unambiguously and universally send out a communication to the entire staff that makes it clear that our policy is to follow proper documentation."
Hendricks said she is drafting a message that will "state those expectations."
The Office for Civil Rights will be in Palo Alto on Thursday, March 29, to review files, visit the high schools and hold public office hours, Farrell said. The agency is still investigating three employee and three student cases, according to Farrell. The Office for Civil Rights indicated last summer that it would investigate the 2016 sexual-assault incident and another on-campus sexual-assault allegation at Paly from 2015.