Palo Alto School District under fire over failure to launch Title IX investigations: 2 Investigates

Sharp criticism continues to surround the Palo Alto School District as the board grapples with the fallout of a scandal over its handling of sexual assaults on campus.

2 Investigates first reported that a student at Palo Alto high was convicted in juvenile court for committing a sex crime against a fellow student. But that student was still attending class and playing sports until recently.

The district said they couldn’t notify parents about the student’s criminal record because of a federal law that protects student records, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). 

In an effort to ease concerns, the school's Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) hosted a community forum on Wednesday night designed to explain FERPA and why, district officials say, their hands are tied when it comes to informing parents.

But legal experts tell 2 Investigates that the district is getting "misguided" legal advice on FERPA, and that the real issue is Title IX and the district's failure to launch Title IX investigations of alleged sex assaults on the Paly campus.

"In this case, Title IX is used to protect girls and women against discrimination that includes violence and assaults, discrimination and harassment based on sex, sexual assaults and sexual harassment," said attorney and Title IX expert Rebecca Eisenberg.

On Wednesday, details of another alleged sexual assault on the Paly campus surfaced.  A current student was quoted in media reports as saying a senior put his hands down her pants on the quad and molested her, back in November 2015.

The same article quotes her father as saying the case was reported, but the district did not launch a Title IX investigation.

Almost a year later, a 14-year-old freshman told school officials a different student forced her to perform oral sex in a school bathroom, as first reported by 2 Investigates.

"After the incident, he treated me like a piece of trash. He didn't care. It was just hard," she said.

This student eventually left the district. Her mother tells 2 Investigates that the case was adjudicated in juvenile court, with the student-athlete in question convicted of having oral sex with a minor. But the district confirms there was never a Title IX investigation.

Eisenberg says the oversight is significant since Title IX goes beyond just asking both parties what happened.

"It needs to be done by an individual or several individuals who have been trained, who know how to ask the right questions," said Eisenberg, “who can promise the confidentiality to the victim. Who know what kinds of people (need) to be questioned, and in what way. And of course, everything needs to be documented."

District Superintendent Max McGee promised reforms in light of the current scandal. A new deputy superintendent will oversee Title IX complaints and investigations into alleged misconduct. McGee says two law firms are working with the district to identify suitable candidates for the newly created position.

Eisenberg wonders why, in such a highly-rated district, these steps weren't taken before at least two female students at Palo Alto High were violated.

"When they follow the process that the law provides, things happen correctly. I think the problem we have now is what to do when they didn't follow the process? And, how do you help, how do you take away harm that already happened?" said Eisenberg.

The current coordinator overseeing Title IX at the district is Holly Wade, who is leaving her position on June 9, according to district officials. McGee says  wants her replacement, even if temporary, to be in place then. He also said he wants to hire full-time investigators.

McGee still hasn't answered questions from 2 Investigates about why Title IX investigations in the two cases mention above were not initiated.

Prior to 2 Investigates first report, the Palo Alto School District spent four years under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over its response to sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. In March, the Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) determined that the district violated Title IX, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

The department found that the district violated federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to “promptly and equitably” respond to and investigate reports of alleged sexual assault.

As part of its agreement with the U-S Department of Education, Palo Alto Unified School District will be required to revise its policies, create an anonymous reporting system, and provide more training for employees, according to the OCR agreement.

 

KTVU reporter Jesse Gary contributed to this report.

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