More than a year after the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened two separate sexual-harassment investigations at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, both cases remain pending. Rather than continue to wait for an outcome, Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Max McGee is proposing a new course of action: Work with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to seek early resolution for both cases.
McGee's recommendation to invite the OCR to the district to negotiate possible resolution agreements will come to the school board for discussion on Tuesday night.
School board member Ken Dauber who both before and after being elected to the board has pushed the district to take a more collaborative, proactive stance on civil rights issues requested the agenda item. Dauber noted in a blog post on the topic that under OCR procedures, a school district can request to negotiate a resolution at any time prior to the completion of an investigation and can resolve an investigation without receiving an official letter of finding.
In April 2014, the OCR opened its investigation at Paly to look into whether the school responded properly when allegations of student sexual harassment or assault were reported. The case was opened shortly after a series of articles were published in student magazine Verde describing how up to nine student who had been sexually assaulted had then been "harassed verbally on social media after the assaults" by other students. It also coincided with the resignation of then-Paly principal Phil Winston, who at the time was under investigation by school district officials for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior involving both staff and students.
The next month, the OCR opened a new investigation at Gunn in response to a family's complaint that the school failed to "appropriately and effectively respond to notice of sexual harassment at the school."
These two investigations followed several others the OCR opened in previous years in the district around bullying and discrimination.
"Four years of what feels like investigations in perpetuity is draining our organizations' time and resources," McGee wrote in a staff report detailing his recommendation. "We have and currently are investing in and ensuring excellent, safe and healthy learning environments for students and staff. I am so impressed with and proud of what we have accomplished thus far, but if we need to do more, let's find out what that is and get it done now."
McGee has been in touch with OCR staff members intermittently since he arrived at the district in August 2014 and provided updates on this communication to the public at school board meetings. He is now asking the board to authorize him to invite OCR leadership to the district to "discuss the district's strengths and identify areas of improvement so we can ascertain precisely what they would like to see in order to have full confidence that we have been proactive in upholding and honoring students' civil rights and are aligned with OCR's mission," he wrote in the staff report.
He said he would report the federal agency's response to the board, which would then determine whether or not to instruct McGee to enter negotiations for potential resolution.
Under an OCR Case Processing Manual, resolution agreements must include: specific acts or steps the district will take to resolve compliance issues; dates for implementing each act or step; dates for submission of reports and documentation; where appropriate, language requiring submission of documents and/or other information or actions for OCR's review and approval, and timeframes for their submission; timeframes requiring the recipient to implement what OCR has approved, and language requiring documentation verifying implementation.
By signing a resolution agreement, the district would agree to "provide data and other information in a timely manner" to the OCR.
Resolution agreements also require "effective and vigorous case monitoring" and allow the Office for Civil Rights to conduct further site visits and interviews if necessary, the manual reads.
"OCR will closely monitor the recipient's implementation of the resolution agreement to ensure that the commitments made are implemented fully and effectively and that the recipient is in compliance with the statute(s) and regulation(s) at issue," the Case Processing Manual states.
Dauber wrote in his blog post that resolution agreements in sexual harassment cases "typically provide for new policies, training, and procedures that better protect students from both educator and peer harassment. The district would clearly benefit from such measures."
Palo Alto Unified has entered resolution agreements for past OCR cases, including one involving the district's mishandling of the ongoing bullying of a disabled middle school student, which ended in a December 2012 resolution in which the district agreed to rewrite its policies and procedures on bullying.
The district also entered into another resolution agreement for a case also involving disability discrimination.
McGee told the Weekly Monday that he hopes his recommendation, if approved by the board, will finally move the district forward from years of divisive contention over the OCR cases and how they were handled by the district.
It's also a new tack for a school board that in June 2014 (with two former members, before Dauber and Terry Godfrey were elected) approved a resolution criticizing the federal agency's investigative procedures.
"We have a lot of important business that has to do with teaching and learning and social-emotional health and wellness," McGee said. "The more time we spend on these old issues is more time we take away from, frankly, more important business."
"It's a matter of being proactive instead of reactive, and that's the way to do business most effectively," he added.
Tuesday's school board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Other items of business include a discussion of new counseling survey results; the district's 2015 SAT, ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) results; and proposed procedure changes for the board's policy review committee.
View the full agenda here.