Update: Kathleen Krier, head coach of Palo Alto High School's robotics team, has been placed on paid administrative leave for school administration to investigate complaints from students and parents over her behavior. Read the full story here.
Students on Palo Alto High School's competitive robotics team are clashing with a new head coach whose communication around changes to the student-driven program has created what some students describe as a hostile educational environment.
At Tuesday's school board meeting, several robotics students described feeling "intimidated, bullied and scared" by the coach, Kathleen Krier, who was hired after coach Christopher Kuzmaul left at the end of the previous school year. Twenty-two students on the 72-member team signed a statement that says Krier "has enforced a number of rules before taking time to understand the nature and goals of the robotics team," with students' attempts to discuss the changes with her "ignored or taken as personal attacks."
"We have felt intimidation, fear, and discomfort from being around the head coach, and we feel this has not been addressed or even acknowledged by the administration," they wrote in the statement, which calls for Krier's immediate removal.
On behalf of the team, co-captain Jennifer Xu filed last month a formal complaint about Krier's conduct through the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP).
Krier did not respond to questions for this story. She was previously a computer science teacher at Monta Vista High School in Danville for four years, according to her LinkedIn page. She is also teaching computer science at Paly.
Robotics students and parents have voiced frustration that their attempts to resolve their concerns with the Paly administration, including Principal Adam Paulson and Assistant Principal Tom Keating, have not resulted in any action.
In an email to the Weekly, Paulson said that his administrative team has been supporting and listening to the students but that required safety changes are "being met with resistance."
"This is Ms. Krier's first year at Paly and I believe should be given an opportunity to lead the robotics team," Paulson wrote. "We have, and will continue to make sure our students feel safe and supported. All allegations and statements are receiving our full attention."
Robotics has been an entirely student-run organization, with the previous coach taking a hands-off, facilitator role. Many team members describe the campus lab as a place of refuge and friendship during their high school years.
Students said the Paly administration raised concerns about lab safety and supervision policies with the robotics team in May and June. Students and parents "repeatedly emphasized to administrators we wanted to understand the expectations and work with them to address concerns," Xu told the Weekly.
When Krier started this fall, "new rules began springing up without any communication," she said. "Often, these rules were unclear, and many have changed multiple times since."
Xu said the students were informed that a certificated teacher must be present during all lab hours and parent volunteers were not needed, then were told a career technical education (CTE) credentialed teacher must be present for the lab to be open. Krier has not been responsive to students' efforts to clarify and understand these and other new rules, Xu said.
Other students voiced concern about Krier's conduct that has made them feel uncomfortable at school, including using swear words (not directed at students), becoming emotional to the point of tears in front of a student and raising her voice at the two co-captains in a locked room at the lab.
At Tuesday's school board meeting, Superintendent Don Austin said that new employees often have to "calibrate" in a different school district.
"This is not a rationalization. It's not a defense. It's none of those things … when you're new, like I am too right now, you come from a place where you were successful or you would not be employed here," Austin said. "Some things that you are successful in you know apply perfectly to your new setting. Some things do not."
He said he had faith in the Paly administration and students to find a resolution.
"Students are problem-solvers and at the end of the day, kids make sense and they will figure a way to work through issues if given some space," Austin said.