Law protects Palo Alto H.S. student convicted for sexual assault, 2 Investigates

You send your children to school, believing they’ll be safe and well-cared for, but 2 Investigates learned of a troubling circumstance where a law designed to protect privacy of student accused or convicted of the most serious crimes could also be putting other students at risk.

KTVU learned one student-athlete in the Palo Alto School District has been convicted in juvenile court of oral copulation by force, violence, duress, menace, or fear and it’s not the only time he’s been accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl.

We talked to 14-year-old freshman and former classmate of the student-athlete in question, but we're not disclosing her name due to the nature of the accusations.

"He was in my class and he was very friendly. We were friends. I'd see him around school sometimes," she told us recently. "He'd say ‘Hi, or hola as a joke, because he was in my Spanish class." 

She says innocent flirtation in a high school hallway with a boy two years older turned into unwanted physical touching, stalking behavior and snapchatting nude pictures of himself.

Then in October 2016, she says he invited her to meet in a boy’s bathroom inside school. She says kissing, turned into a sexual assault. Her description of what happened may not be suitable for younger readers.

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

In the days that followed, the victim says her previous condition of panic attacks worsened.

By the end of the week, she told school administrators what happened, then her mother.

"It makes me hurt for her. It also makes me furious living it again," said her mother, who asked we conceal her identity as well to ensure on anonymity for her daughter."  

The alleged victim’s family says the case went to juvenile court and the suspect was convicted of having oral sex with a minor.

Palo Alto School District officials declined an on-camera interview request about this case, instead issuing this statement.

“The district was aware of the allegation in October 2016, looked into it and administrators took appropriate disciplinary action.”

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." 

We 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. The FERPA law could explain why the Palo Alto School District either didn’t know or didn’t alert anyone to a similar crime by the same suspect. Just one year prior, it was the same scenario, but this time against a 15-year-old, in a Palo Alto church bathroom. The victim in this case says she first argued against performing oral sex, then after a few minutes she acquiesced.

Again, we caution, the following description of the crime may not be suitable for younger readers.

"About less than five seconds into it, I changed my mind decided in no way did I want to do this," she told us from the living room of her home. "And that's when he started pushing my head down. When I tried to pull away, he started pushing my head down more forcefully."

This case also went to juvenile court, after the victim says, she recorded the student athlete admitting his actions.

After his conviction, she showed KTVU a letter she says he wrote to her, saying, “[I] apologize for my horrible actions. When a girl says no it means no. And, what I did was totally not cool, unfair, and selfish."

Since we started looking into these cases, a third alleged victim contacted KTVU and says she was also sexually assaulted by the same high school student athlete.  This time at a house party in Redwood City in January 2016. The mother of the alleged victim says the encounter, "Started as consensual," but at some point she said stop. He did not.

The mother says she filed a police report with Palo Alto Police, but so far, no charges have been filed. And no one at the school can share information about any allegations or convictions.

"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. That process would is difficult and time consuming, and would come too late for the 14-year-old girl sexually assaulted in the high school bathroom. The alleged crime and aftermath were so severe, her family has moved from the area."