Palo Alto school board continues revisions to policy after 2 Investigates series

Palo Alto school district board members continue making revisions to board policies. Those policies are designed to protect students from harassment and make criteria for reporting incidents or crimes crystal clear. 

This comes in the wake of two alleged sexual assault scandals, brought to light by a series of 2 Investigates reports. 

The goal of protecting students from real-world dangers moved online. The Palo Alto Unified School District launched its new complaint procedures reporting form.

"This was part of the resolution agreement. We've gone back-and-forth with OCR (Office of Civil Rights. We've had help from our attorneys. and we're happy to see this up and running," said district Superintendent Dr. Glenn "Max" McGee.

Within the online form, there's a sub-section tab for Title-IX complaints involving sexual assaults. Victims can file a complaint anonymously, which automatically initiates a Title IX investigation.

District lawyers are also tweaking, strengthening, and clarifying language in existing policies covering uniform complaint procedures, sexual harassment and non-discrimination. The district is taking these steps as part of it's resolution agreement with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR).

"These are very difficult and complicate issues that are not one hundred percent clear in a 'dear colleague' letter or the education code or the PAUSD policies," said Eve Fichtner, a lawyer hired by the district to help review and rewrite policy.

Just three months ago, the OCR completed a four-year investigation that found the PAUSD failed to take appropriate steps in a prompt manner in cases of alleged sexual assault dating back to 2013. In May, our series of 2-Investigates reports detailed how a Paly high school student-athlete was convicted in juvenile court of having oral sex with a minor in a school bathroom last October. But the district did not initiate a Title-IX investigation as required by federal law. Many parents say a line of trust has been broken.

"We want our children to be able to be at school and in an environment where they can learn. and absolutely trust is necessary to do that," said Sondra Zenger, who has four children enrolled in the district.

Since our initial report, 19 additional allegations of sexual harassment have been made, including the revelation of a sex assault against a 16-year-old girl on the Paly campus quad in November 2015. Despite obvious lapses in judgment, district officials believe they're on the path to creating an environment where students feel comfortable coming forward. But some parents remain skeptical.

"Is this just another end-around from scrutiny and accountability? Another opportunity for non-compliance?" asked parent Kathy Jordan, an outspoken critic of the district's board.

Next month one of the law firms investigating the district's handling of sex assault cases will give an oral report to the board. Additionally, district officials hope to gain OCR approval for their recommended policy changes, so that staff training can begin August 1.