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At the Palo Alto school board's first public meeting about a just completed law-firm investigation into the district's response to an October sexual-assault case on Thursday, trustees expressed their disappointment at the district's continuing lack of progress on Title IX issues while Palo Alto High School staff turned out to support a principal they fear could lose her job as a result of the case.
At the standing-room-only meeting, the lawyers from Cozen O'Connor publicly and for the first time named four Paly administrators and two district leaders involved in the case of a female freshman who reported to school staff that a male junior had forced her to perform oral sex on him in a campus bathroom last fall. A draft report on the lawyer's findings, released Wednesday afternoon, had not named any of the administrators involved.
The assistant principals identified by the numbers "1," "2" and "3" in the report were identified Thursday as Vicki Kim, Jerry Berkson and Kathie Laurence, who is now the principal at Gunn High School. The other administrators involved are Paly Principal Kim Diorio, Superintendent Max McGee and former Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade, who served as the district’s Title IX coordinator at the time. Wade has since left the district.
For the first time on Thursday, the lawyers revealed the tension that occurred between Paly and district staff over the case, describing how Kim repeatedly asked superiors, including Wade, if the school should offer the female student the option of filing a complaint under the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure, which they were required to do.
Lawyers Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez said Wade told them she consulted with a district attorney, identified as Dora Dome, who advised that no Title IX investigation was necessary. Assuming Wade's version of what she told Dome is accurate, Dome's advice went against board policy, state law and federal anti-discrimination law Title IX, Smith and Gomez said Thursday. (Board members agreed, at the suggestion of trustee Todd Collins, to look further into the advice given and consider whether a legal claim against Dome is warranted. The district no longer uses Dome, who was hired to assist with trainings required by earlier Office for Civil Rights resolution agreements and the development of district policies. She is not employed by the law firms that perform the bulk of the district's legal work.)
The district was in fact "in practice," Smith said, "of not offering a UCP and responding at the site level."
The Cozen attorneys also cited Diorio for neglecting her responsibility as principal to inform the female student and her family of their right to file a complaint under the district's procedure.
In addition, under Diorio's leadership, a "longstanding" practice -- initiated by "prior district-level employees," including Wade, but openly communicated at principal and cabinet meetings -- continued of avoiding written documentation that could be released under a Public Records Act request, Gomez said. Staff members instead communicated about this case via text message and kept personal handwritten notes or notes on their iPhones, the lawyers said.
There was "fear and the distrust that things would be released," Gomez said, and "also some concern about distrust of the board at various times."
The attorneys credited the first two staff members who responded to the student -- Claire Gleeson, an instructional aide, and Jonathan Frecceri, then Paly's mental health coordinator -- for responding promptly and as required. When the student first reported the incident to Gleeson on a Friday afternoon in October, Gleeson immediately took her to the wellness center, where Frecceri spoke with her and then notified Kim and a school resource officer. Frecceri, who no longer works at Paly, maintained "thorough," contemporaneous notes of what happened throughout the afternoon and into the evening, Gomez said.
Several weeks later, Laurence, too, responded promptly and appropriately to the female student's report that she was being harassed by other students as a result of the incident, the report states. But despite being aware of the previous sexual-assault report, Laurence did not communicate with Kim, Diorio or Wade about the harassment, according to the lawyers. She did follow up with the female student about a week later, but did not inform Kim or Diorio about it nor document the conversation contemporaneously.
And when Laurence was copied on an email that described the female student's intention to leave Paly because of the impact of the incident and "subsequent rumors," Laurence again did not share information about the harassment she had responded to, Smith said.
As their report also stated, the two lawyers repeatedly laid blame at the feet of Wade, who they said despite sending out staff memos and other communication about the district's Title IX obligations, repeatedly failed to meet those obligations herself in this case.
And while McGee initially recognized the potential need for a UCP and communicated this to Wade, it does not appear he followed up on this request.
"The authority and the burden of initiating UCP investigation sits at the district level and sits with the Title IX coordinator," Gomez said.
The Paly administrators, despite their initial responsiveness, also failed to complete a required investigation or formally determine if the incident itself had taken place, the lawyers found. Administrators did not take steps to evaluate issues of consent, the "welcomeness" of the alleged conduct nor a potential pattern of behavior by the male student, they said.
Notes from interviews with the students and witnesses were also not made contemporaneously — akin to attending a lecture and writing down notes about what the teacher said when you get home, Gomez said.
A public comment from a Paly staff member, Diorio's assistant Carolyn Benfield, also revealed that top school and district administrators, including McGee, had not received Title IX-specific training until May of this year, after this case came to light publicly.
In an interview after the meeting, McGee told the Weekly that while all administrators had received required, "generic" sexual harassment training that touched on policies relevant in this case, the May training was their first in-depth, dedicated session on Title IX requirements and investigations.
School board, community react to report
McGee, whose own future in the district has been the subject of several closed-session evaluations over the last week, acknowledged the missteps in this case and promised future accountability.
"This specific incident was indicative that our district was not at the level of legal knowledge, awareness, safety and accountability where it should have been at the time and where it must be," he said. "I make no excuses."
He noted improvements that have been made in recent months, which were also acknowledged by the Cozen O'Connor lawyers: increased Title IX training; a new online anonymous reporting option; a new system for logging and tracking UCP complaints; the intention to hire a full-time, dedicated Title IX coordinator; the hiring of trained, outside investigators for "complex and serious allegations;" and district-level personnel changes, among others.
Some school board members expressed disappointment at the district's inability to make progress on Title IX issues, despite being under federal investigation for similar missteps for the last four years. This case indicates that the school district still lacks necessary protocol and coordination in this area, they said.
"I really believe that people want to do the right thing but wanting to do the right thing and having a system to make sure the right thing happens no matter what, even when mistakes are made, are different," said trustee Melissa Baten Caswell. "To me this is a challenge we have in a lot of areas, not just this."
Vice President Ken Dauber said that the district has not only failed to create a "culture of compliance," but staff members have not had sufficient practical experience with compliance, leading to with happened in this case: a path paved by good intentions that resulted in a failure to do what is required by law and policy.
"When students experience harassment or discrimination, staff have not had access to an ongoing set of practices that if they enact those practices, the right thing will happen," Dauber said. "Instead, what we see in the report is many staff members … draw on their own good intentions to make decisions that are often right (and) sometimes wrong from the perspective of the law but it doesn't guarantee students what they're entitled to under federal law and under state law and board policy, which is a consistent outcome that ultimately leads to the remedies that they need in order to pursue their educational program."
Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza asked the lawyers -- whose practice is dedicated to examining the institutional response of school districts, colleges and universities to Title IX issues -- what steps other institutions have taken to be successful in this area, beyond the expected steps of increasing training and revising policy.
"What are we missing?" DiBrienza asked.
Smith said schools have established a centralized, clear protocol: when a report comes in, its documented and immediately shared with the "core individuals who have to make decisions" on next steps. All action is documented in real time and shared via platforms like Google Docs or Excel spreadsheets, she said. The lawyers repeatedly stressed the importance of documentation and standardization for ensuring accountability.
Compliance is also viewed not as a box to check off, but a cultural commitment at those institutions, Gomez said.
With a detailed report of the district's failures in this case in hand, it's now the responsibility of senior leadership to enact those kinds of practices and promote that culture, trustees said.
"I understand that the personnel implications of this loom large for many in the room," Dauber said, "but I think that the real focus of this is understanding how to do better at this work as an organization and how to have a school district that really protects students by living the practice of compliance."
This responsibility also falls on those who sit at the dais, Collins said -- both the board and the superintendent.
"It's that 'tone at the top' about ethics and values that tells the people in the organization what's OK, what's expected and what's not. That tone at the top is set by the people at this rostrum," he said. "I think we need to change the way we address things and make sure we establish a tone at the top that is consistent with the kind of outcomes that our students deserve."
In public comments, close to 20 Paly teachers and students repeatedly defended their principal and administrators. They credited Diorio with a dramatic culture shift at Paly in recent years — from a school where student streakers were a regular occurrence, creating a hostile environment, to one where they said students and staff feel safe and supported on campus.
"Paly is a new school because of Kim's leadership," said English teacher and instructional supervisor Shirley Tokheim. "Kim is beloved at Paly and I am with her."
Paly senior Noga Hurwitz told the board that under Diorio's leadership, streaking has been "virtually" eliminated and conversations about mental health put at the "forefront" of school culture. A student journalist, she said Diorio has "committed to transparency" with Paly's student press.
Another student described how after going through a "hard time" her freshman year, Diorio repeatedly checked in with her and "made me feel safe again at Paly."
Other longtime teachers described Diorio one as an effective, compassionate leader being unfairly attacked for her role in this case. Many in the audience rose out of their seats when Paly teacher Josh Bloom asked everyone who supports Diorio to stand up.
Only a few parents spoke critically at Thursday's meeting, calling for accountability for the administrators involved.
"I've sat in this room for many hours over the past few years listening to the board discuss issues with compliance with Title IX and yet here we are again," said Andrea Wolf. "My observation leads me to believe that a failure to actually perform the basic requirements of one's role is common at the district level. I would like to see this change."
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of sexual misconduct in the Palo Alto school district. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.