Feds check up on Palo Alto schools in wake of sex assault scandal: 2 Investigates

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Federal attorneys paid a visit to Palo Alto schools Thursday to see how the district is recovering and repairing a tumultuous year marked by a series of campus sex assault scandals uncovered by 2 Investigates.

Attorney with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights met with parents, teachers, and administrators behind closed doors to hear their thoughts and concerns about the district’s handling of Title IX issues. The law “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

KTVU first reported last year about a high school student who was previously convicted in juvenile court of oral copulation by force, violence, duress, menace, or fear, but who is still attending class and playing sports. 

Yet school district officials failed to alert parents or properly report and investigate the claims, blaming a federal law meant to protect the privacy of student records.

At the time, the district was already under federal monitoring by the U.S. Department of Education for mishandling similar complaints in the past. Last March, the government concluded a four-year investigation into the district’s response to sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. 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 department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Palo Alto Unified School District was required to revise its policies, create an anonymous reporting system, and provide more training for employees.

Yet some critics who spoke to 2 Investigates on Thursday say the district is still not doing enough to protect students, and lacks transparency with the public. According to district officials, nearly 150 new complaints have been logged since the beginning of this school year alone.

“They have it all backwards,” said Rebecca Eisenberg, an education and civil rights attorney and vocal critic of the PAUSD. “They're causing themselves liability by not taking these incident reports seriously and they still haven't changed."

“Campuses need to keep kids safe and free from discrimination, said Kathy Jordan, a Palo Alto parent. “They're required to do that under the law. It's not optional.”

Since 2 Investigates began looking into the issue, PAUSD’s Title IX Coordinator has been replaced and the Superintendent resigned abruptly. A search is still underway for new district leadership.

The new Title IX Coordinator Megan Farrell updated school board members earlier this month on her plan to get the district in compliance with the law. Her proposal includes a new complaint process, plans for a training boot camp, and having an administrator on special assignment to investigate Title IX complaints.

District leaders and officials with OCR declined to speak with 2 Investigates for this report, but a U.S. Department of Education released the following statement: 

"Representatives from the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, will be visiting the Palo Alto Unified School District on Thursday, March 29.  OCR is making this visit as part of monitoring a resolution agreement with the district, which resolved the aforementioned cases.  The agreement, which was signed by the district in March 2017, addresses the district’s compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.  Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in programs that receive federal financial assistance.  The agreement addresses the district’s response to reports and complaints of sexual harassment, including sexual violence.  OCR engages in vigorous enforcement to ensure compliance during the monitoring process, including by conducting onsite visits and interviewing staff and community members."
 

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