Palo Alto school board mulls outside counsel to review sex assault case handling

PALO ALTO (KTVU) -- The board of the Palo Alto Unified School District considered Tuesday night whether to hire outside counsel to explore how the district handled a case involving an alleged sexual assault.

The district may spend $250,000 to retain the law firm of Cozen O'Connor to conduct the review.

The case involving a student athlete at Palo Alto High School was adjudicated in a juvenile court but teachers, parents and students say they were kept in the dark about the incident.

School district officials have said they could not divulge details about the case because of existing federal law that shields the records of minors but a report by 2 Investigates found that may not be the case.

District officials said they routinely decide at the end of each fiscal year whether to retain several firms for the next school year.

But what isn't routine has been the number of angry parents who have vented to school board members for two weeks in a row over the district's handling of cases involving alleged sexual misconduct.

"Things happen on campus and instead of going through proper channels, they try to handle things in house," said parent Keith Ferrell.


Some parents have called for the ouster of the superintendent and the principal at Palo Alto High School in the wake of recent reports by 2 Investigates earlier this month about a 14-year-old freshman who said she was sexually assaulted inside a school bathroom.

Her attacker was a student athlete who attended Palo Alto high and he was convicted in juvenile court of having oral sex with a minor. The student, who identity has not been publicly disclosed because he is a juvenile, remained in school and played sports before withdrawing from the school with plans to complete his education elsewhere.

Said parent Kathy Jordan: "They had duties and obligations under Title IX to put a complaint in place and also to investigate the victim's allegations."

The victim and her mother told KTVU FOX 2 News that a lack of support from the school and district administrators prompted them to leave the area.

"As parents, we all work together (and) we all put our kids in the same school to get the same education so they can go far," said the parent of the 14-year-old victim, her voice cracking with emotion. "But my daughter had to leave because I feel Palo Alto High School failed my child."

KTVU FOX 2 News is not identifying the victim or her mother since the girl was the victim of a crime.

District officials have not commented about this case, continuing to say their lack of transparency is due to the Family Educational Rights and Pricy Act, also known as FERPA.

District officials say student records, even those convicted in juvenile court, cannot be released

"FERPA is a head fake that the administration and the district are touting," the girl's mother said. "They're hiding behind FERPA as the reason they can't explain their actions."

Jordan and fellow parent Keith Ferrell are both concerned since they have children attending Palo Alto High School. She says FERPA doesn't apply in this case because the record isn't academic, it's from juvenile court.

Attorney Frank LoMonte, of the Washington, D.C.-based Student Press Law Center is an expert on FERPA, and he agrees.

"As long as the information doesn't come out of the centrally maintained school file, then it's not confidential," LoMonte said.

On Wednesday, an expert is expected to explain the law and the application of Title IX to Palo Alto High School parents.

District officials confirmed they did not file an investigation under Title IX rules after the freshman girl came forward about the attack in the school bathroom. Those officials have not said why they didn't pursue such an investigation.

By KTVU reporter Jesse Gary.