2 Investigates: Report slams Palo Alto schools' handling of sex assaults

A report examining how Palo Alto School District handled an on-campus sexual assault first reported by 2 Investigates slams administrators for repeated failures and skirting federal and state law.

A draft of the report, commissioned by the Board of Education by the law firm Cozen O’Connor, was released ahead of Thursday night’s board meeting where the results will be discussed publicly.

The report’s authors investigated the district's response to a female student at Palo Alto High School who reported that a male junior student-athlete had forced her to perform oral sex on him in a campus bathroom in October 2016.

READ: Law firm's investigative report into PAUSD's response to sexual assault complaints

According to investigators, the way the district responded to the complaint “reflected systemic concerns” about the district’s supervision, policies, personnel, and the role of the Title IX Coordinator at the time, Holly Wade, who has since resigned.

The report also criticized the district for performing “a limited investigation” and for imposing “insufficient” penalties against the student-athlete, which the District is obligated to do under the federal Title IX law, state law, and the school board’s own policy.

The victim of the on-campus assault told 2 Investigates in May that the male student-athlete “was in my class and he was very friendly. We were friends. I'd see him around school sometimes. He’d say hi, or ‘hola’ as a joke, because he was in my Spanish class.”

She said innocent flirtations with the older boy turned into unwanted physical touching, stalking behavior and Snapchatting nude pictures of himself. The girl said that eventually the boy invited her to meet him in a boy’s bathroom inside the school, and kissing turned to sexual assault.

"He unbuckles his pants and he unbuckles mine. And then he tells me to get down. And then, um, he tells me to suck him off,” she said. "I was just very shaken. Like, I couldn't speak. I was very confused as to what I just let happen."

The girl’s mother told 2 Investigates that the family reported the incident and the case to juvenile court where the suspect was convicted of having oral sex with a minor. But the boy was still enrolled in Palo Alto High School during the 2016-17 school year and still playing sports.

“It makes me hurt for her. It also makes me furious living it again," the girl’s mother said.

Palo Alto district officials told 2 Investigates that "the district was aware of the allegation in October 2016, looked into it, and administrators took appropriate disciplinary action."

The district cited the Federal Educational Privacy Rights Act (FERPA), which protects the educational records of minors, as the reason they did not discuss or release any details of the student-athlete’s conviction with parents or the community.

But legal expert Robert Allard disagreed, telling 2 Investigates that legal protection should apply not only to the accused but also to the hundreds of other students at the high school who could be at risk.

"Schools have a protective duty to protect their students. They stand in the shoes or parents who entrust their kids to school every day. So if they have information that this child presents an imminent danger to others, appropriate action has to be taken to prevent future harm,” said Allard.

The freshman girl eventually withdrew from Palo Alto High School. She said after the assault she suffered panic attacks and anxiety.

2 Investigates also learned that the assault in the school bathroom wasn’t the first allegation of sexual assault against the same student-athlete. According to court documents, the boy was also accused of forcing a 15-year-old girl to perform oral sex in a church bathroom just one year prior to the school assault. The case also went to juvenile court and the boy wrote an apology letter to the victim, saying what he did was “totally not cool, unfair, and selfish,” according records made public by the court.

Since KTVU’s initial report, more students have come forward with their own stories of sexual assault, violence, or harassment at Palo Alto High School. The district has logged nearly 30 new Title IX complaints since May.

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