by Chris Kenrick and Terri Lobdell
A federal civil-rights agency is investigating whether Palo Alto High School has complied with legal requirements designed to ensure an "educational environment free of sexual harassment, and whether it responds promptly and effectively to complaints or other notice of sexual harassment."
In a June 3 letter to Palo Alto Superintendent Kevin Skelly, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) said it had "received information that (Paly) has not provided a prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault."
Unlike five other recent or active Office for Civil Rights investigations of the district, which were opened in response to individual complaints, this inquiry apparently was initiated by the federal agency and is a broad compliance review not focused on a particular case or student.
Although the notification letter does not mention them specifically, the events reported April 9 in a six-part story in Paly's student magazine, Verde, will almost certainly be a part of the investigation. The articles included anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled, off-campus sexual assaults of Paly students; interviews with victims of rape and other Paly students; discussion of Paly students' attitudes on victim-blaming; and an editorial criticizing the mainstream media's "sympathetic" portrayal of high school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.
In one of the Verde articles, an alleged victim said she felt socially ostracized at school after she told her parents and police what had happened. After talking with the student and her family, staff of the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services who worked at Paly filed a police report on the student's behalf, but she chose not to press charges.
"Everyone was making me feel like just a lying slut who got herself in this situation," the teen told Verde. "Even though I know that's not what happened, that's how people were making me feel."
It is also likely that investigators will look at how the school responded in January when officials learned of sexually explicit gossip and harassment of several students on an anonymous blog called "PA Gossip Girl" and then spread to Facebook. At the time, students notified police and Paly principal Phil Winston, but gossip and peer harassment (including reference to a sexual assault) continued both on and off campus and on social media, according to several students interviewed by the Weekly.
At a May 7 school board meeting and in an email to members of the Board of Education, Stanford Law School Professor Michele Dauber asserted that the Verde articles should have triggered an investigation by the school district as to whether the alleged victims faced a "hostile environment" at Paly due to the assaults and because of the victim-blaming recounted in the articles.
Dauber, who developed Stanford's current sexual-harassment policies and co-founded the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, said she believed the district had failed to meet its legal obligation to look into the matter, which is required under Title IX even if the alleged sexual assaults occurred off campus and even if no complaint is made to the school.
Later in May, Skelly said the district was conducting an inquiry into the matter.
The district is "reviewing what we knew (and) what steps we took to address the concerns" raised by the articles, Skelly told the Weekly May 15. There has been no report on the results of that review, and Skelly declined to comment about it via email this week.
In the June 3 letter from the Office for Civil Rights notifying Skelly of the federal investigation, Regional Director Arthur Zeidman said his agency is "a neutral fact finder, collecting and analyzing relevant evidence from the recipient and other sources as appropriate." Opening an investigation in no way implies that the Office for Civil Rights has made a determination with regard to the issue's merits, he said.
The Weekly obtained the letter from the agency, which released it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. School officials had kept the existence of the notification letter secret from the public by excluding it from public copies of communications with school board members, asserting it was a confidential student matter.
In an email Tuesday, July 9, Skelly asked the Weekly not to publish information about the new investigation and implied it focused on a single student and could harm the alleged victim's "progress in her educational program that may come from public discussion."
The district has not taken this position with other Office for Civil Rights complaints (except to redact names and identifying information, of which there were none in this latest letter, since it wasn't based on an individual complaint).
"The District and OCR have been working together to protect the student's privacy and to confirm the district's compliance with Title IX," Skelly said. Nevertheless, the Office for Civil Rights released the letter to the Weekly without redactions.
Neena Chaudhry, an expert on Title IX, said it is common for victims to face a "hostile learning environment" following an alleged sexual assault, at both the high school and college levels.
"The effects are serious; there have been grave injuries to students," said Chaudhry, senior counsel with the National Women's Law Center in Washington, D.C.
In conducting an investigation into this sort of situation, Chaudhry said, the Office for Civil Rights probably will look first at what the school knew or should have known, what its policies and procedures were, and who the Title IX coordinator was and what actions were taken. (In Palo Alto, school principals are the designated site coordinators, and Associate Superintendent Charles Young is the district's coordinator.)
Paul Kandell, Paly journalism teacher and Verde's adviser, said Thursday he is "not in a position to know whether the (Title IX) law was followed at the school administrative or district level in any particular case at Paly."
"I am confident that I do not have any unresolved mandatory reporting obligations related to the Verde 'rape culture' story. Any I might have had I resolved promptly and completely," Kandell said in an email to the Weekly. "I appreciate and respect the Title IX law and the intent behind it."
Chaudhry said it is not unusual for the Office for Civil Rights to initiate its own investigations based on information from media reports or elsewhere.
The agency's investigation reflects a "guidance" memo the office issued in 2011 to all school districts reminding them of the need to fully investigate and take action in cases of peer sexual harassment. Recent cases in Saratoga and Steubenville, Ohio, where student victims of sexual assaults were teased and harassed by their peers (the Saratoga victim later died by suicide), have increased concerns over how school officials address on-campus behavior stemming from off-campus activity.
READ MORE ONLINE
The Office for Civil Rights letter to the school district about the Title IX investigation has been posted with the digital version of this story on Palo Alto Online.