The findings paint a detailed if clinical picture of the district's failure to not only comply with federal law but follow its own policies and procedures in eight separate sexual harassment, assault and misconduct cases involving students, teachers, staff and an administrator since 2013.
In numerous cases, the district failed to conduct any Title IX investigation after receiving reports of sexual harassment and violence, including when it became aware of allegations that a Palo Alto High School student had been sexually assaulted off campus and that former Paly Principal Phil Winston had sexually harassed students and staff. The resolution agreement directs the district to address these and other missteps by hiring an outside investigator, to be approved by the Office for Civil Rights, to conduct proper investigations into the district's handling of several cases.
Other violations that were common across cases include: failing to promptly investigate reports of incidents, provide notice of the outcome of an investigation to the affected parties and assess whether allegations of sexual harassment or violence caused a hostile educational environment for students at school, the Office for Civil Rights found.
The school district's former Title IX coordinator, Associate Superintendent Charles Young, also failed to "discharge his responsibilities" in the role — including not reviewing both oral and written Title IX complaints made at school sites nor scrutinizing them to identify "patterns or systemic problems" — which violated Title IX, the Office for Civil Rights determined. (Young left the district in 2015 to become superintendent of the Benicia Unified School District; the district's chief student services officer, Holly Wade, now serves as Title IX coordinator.)
The federal agency also found the school district's own policies to be in violation of Title IX. The letter of findings describes numerous instances in which the district's policies on sexual harassment, discrimination and complaints regarding employees were inconsistent, non-compliant or not followed. The school district has already started reviewing and updating its policies in these areas and is required to do so as part of the resolution agreement.
Superintendent Max McGee told the Weekly on March 12 that the district "want(s) to ensure that every student is safe and feels safe."
The district is "eager," he added, to launch proper investigations into the cases required by the Office for Civil Rights and will select an independent firm to do so in the next few weeks.
McGee said he was not surprised by any of the findings, in contrast with some community members who worried that signing the resolution agreement would mean getting "blindsided with findings."
"We weren't," he said.
The Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation in Palo Alto in June 2013 in response to Palo Alto High School student publication Verde Magazine's investigation into "rape culture" at the school. Stories included accounts of off-campus sexual assault and at least one student who said she was harassed by other students at school as a result. The agency determined the district violated Title IX when it failed to "take immediate and appropriate steps" to investigate the sexual assault itself as well as the peer harassment.
The federal agency opened another investigation in March 2014 in response to a parent's allegations that the district mishandled allegations of dating violence and stalking at Gunn High School. The district violated Title IX by failing to take immediate interim measures to protect the victim in this case, the findings state, and to "assess and address the hostile environment" the student faced at school as a result of the harassment. As in many other cases, district officials did not provide her family with a notice of the outcome of their investigation.
Gunn administrators also "did not understand" the district's obligation to respond to off-campus sexual harassment and to consider the "full scope" of the impact of that harassment at school, OCR said. (Training for employees and staff, particularly at Gunn and Paly, is another stipulation of the resolution agreement.)
The complainant in the Gunn case, whose name is being withheld by the Weekly to protect the family from further public exposure, told the Weekly her family is "relieved that the investigation has finally concluded and that the OCR has confirmed that serious mistakes were indeed made in our case."
She is working with district staff on suggested policy revisions, which the Board of Education's policy review committee will be tasked with over the next weeks and months.
"We are glad that the new board is moving forward in a more collaborative way with the OCR, and we are more hopeful that future victims will be protected," she said.
The scope of the federal investigation expanded over the years as new allegations arose. In total, the Office for Civil Rights conducted four site visits in Palo Alto and interviewed about 55 school and district staff, including former Superintendent Kevin Skelly, current Superintendent Max McGee, Young, Gunn's and Paly's current principals, assistant principals, teachers, staff, counselors, teachers and student club advisers, according to the letter. The agency also interviewed the student and parent in the Gunn case.
For additional information about the Office for Civil Rights findings, go to PaloAltoOnline.com and read a longer version of this article.
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