The school district has placed Kathleen Krier, Palo Alto High School computer science teacher and head robotics coach, on paid leave following concerns about her behavior, voiced by members of the robotics team.
She was placed on administrative leave on Friday "to provide the time and space needed to thoroughly investigate concerns expressed by students and parents," Superintendent Don Austin said. He declined to provide further detail, citing the confidentiality of personnel decisions.
In the meantime, the robotics club will be shut down temporarily, per a recommendation from Paly Principal Adam Paulson, Austin said.
Robotics students and parents came to last Tuesday's school board meeting to air grievances about Krier, who they described as clashing with students — sometimes inappropriately, from their perspective — over new rules for the largely student-run robotics lab.
Reached by email on Saturday morning, robotics co-captain Jennifer Xu said the team had not been informed about Krier being placed on administrative leave nor the program
being temporarily shut down. Paly Assistant Principal Tom Keating informed the students that the lab would be closed this week for a safety review, she said.
Austin said that the administration is working to address "holdover" safety issues in the campus lab, including by bringing in an outside insurance firm to conduct a safety audit. A scheduled visit from Torrance-based Keenan and Associates has been moved up from the end of the month to this Wednesday, Austin said.
He was not aware whether Krier, who started at Paly this fall after teaching computer science at Monte Vista High School in Danville, had been disciplined in her previous teaching job. He could not confirm whether Paly or the district office has received complaints about her conduct other than from robotics students and parents.
Krier has not responded to questions from the Palo Alto Weekly. She told student news outlet The Paly Voice that robotics students had previously "casually" followed safety practices, including those related to eye, hair and bodily protection, and that supervision was lacking in the lab.
"From my background, we require always a teacher or somebody with a certificated credential to be in the room, and then add mentors and parents on top of that," Krier told The Paly Voice, "whereas the past practice allowed parents to come and supervise without a certificated person."
"This isn't Starbucks. It's a machine shop," she said.
Robotics students have said they were willing to work with Krier on safety improvements but their attempts to do so were "ignored or taken as personal attacks," according to a statement signed by 22 of the 72 team members.
On behalf of the team, co-captain Xu filed last month a formal complaint about Krier's conduct through the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP).
Devin Ardeshna, a 2018 Paly graduate and former robotics team captain, filed another UCP complaint on Thursday alleging Krier has violated policies on discrimination, harassment and staff conduct. Part of his complaint, which is based on third-hand information of incidents in the lab, details concerns about Krier's efforts to recruit a more diverse range of students, which he said "put students of other ethnicities at a disadvantage."
Ardeshna said he hopes his complaint prompts a dialogue between the district's Title IX compliance officer and current robotics students.
Xu echoed that in an email to the Weekly: "We really want to see the Paly administration open up to our concerns and would like to start a transparent and constructive dialogue to do what’s best for the robotics students."
Austin said pausing the robotics program is "very short term" and that Keating will be meeting with students and parents next week to discuss next steps.
"It's clearly a highly valued, complex, sophisticated program," Austin said. "We want to get this all right."