2 Investigates: Palo Alto schools under fire over sex assault case

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Students at Palo Alto High School wore white t-shirts as a symbol of solidarity Monday, in hopes of bringing more attention to the issue of sexual assault after a 2 Investigates report swept through the school community.

KTVU first reported last week 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 are unable to tell parents or other students about it, because of a federal law meant to protect the accused student's privacy.

But prior to 2 Investigates’ report, the U.S. Department of Education concluded a four-year investigation into the Palo Alto Unified School 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.

The Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found that the district violated Title IX, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”

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.

2 Investigates also received much reaction from viewers outraged by the federal law that prevents the district from informing parents and other students about the student-athlete’s conviction.

School district officials and the county District Attorney say they can't talk about this case due to juvenile privacy rights associated with FERPA -- the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. It protects the records of minors.

Everything from attendance and grades all the way to criminal activity can't be discussed or released.

Legal expert Robert Allard disagrees, adding legal protection should apply not only to the accused, but also to the hundreds of other students who could be at risk.

Failure to do so could leave school districts vulnerable to a lawsuit.

"Schools have a protective duty, to protect their students," said Allard from his San Jose office. "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." 

KTVU also spoke with Attorney Mark Davis, who defends various school districts during lawsuits.

School districts, he says, have a legal obligation to protect the records of the accused or convicted juvenile, even if it means allowing them to be near other potential victims.

"Even if the school district thought that law was inappropriate or unfair, their hands are tied," said attorney Mark Davis. "They can't turn over that information at risk of losing federal funding. So whether it's right or wrong, the school really has no discretion."

Legal experts say the only way to amend FERPA is by an act of Congress, and then the state legislature.