School district’s response to sex harassment complaints faulted

By Allison Levitsky
Daily Post Staff Writer

Most parents and students at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools say the school district takes sexual harassment complaints seriously, but that it fumbles its responses to these complaints, according to a new survey conducted under the guidance of the federal Office for Civil Rights.

The Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, opened investigations on the district in 2013 and 2014, ultimately finding in March that the district had repeatedly failed to investigate complaints.

OCR defines sexual harassment as being unwelcome verbal or physical advances or conduct of a sexual nature and includes sexual violence in its definition.

Of the 243 students who reported being sexually harassed at least once in the last school year, only 29 (or 12%) reported the incident to someone at school. Thirty-eight reported the incident to someone outside of school.

“There’re many different reasons for this,” Superintendent Max McGee said at Tuesday’s board meeting, pointing to a fatalist attitude about harassment by some victims who believe that “that’s just the way it is.”

“Some of it was about the school response,” McGee said.

Of 206 students who experienced harassment, 150 said they felt they didn’t need help.

Effective response?

Of the 71 students who reported experiencing or witnessing harassment, 24 (or 34%) described the school’s response as “not effective at all” and 33 (or 46%) said it was moderately or slightly effective. Fourteen (20%) said it was “very” or “extremely” effective.

Students who witnessed other students being harassed gave similar responses. Of 380 students who said they had witnessed sexual harassment in the last school year, 56 (15%) said they reported it at school.

Of 303 witnesses to harassment, 176 (58%) said they felt they did not need help. Still, 1,482 out of 1,595 students (92%) said the school would take the matter seriously if they reported.

But not all parents agreed. Out of 784 parents, only 647 (82.5%) said they thought the school would take the matter seriously if they or their child reported harassment.

New compliance officer

Among the 44 parents who reported sexual harassment incidents, 18 said the school’s response wasn’t effective at all, 18 said it was slightly or moderately effective and eight said it was very or extremely effective.

The district is in the process of hiring for a new full-time administrator who would coordinate the school’s compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which bans gender discrimination in public schools.

Training planned

When the district turned over the survey results to the OCR on Aug. 1, attorney for the district Elizabeth Estes delineated the district’s next steps in improving its climate around harassment by revising policies regarding complaints, hiring a new coordinator, distributing the survey results and training all employees and students in the district on harassment.

The district is also set to conduct another survey in the spring to review progress.

The 1,397 Paly students and 1,152 Gunn students surveyed include 787 freshmen, 543 sophomores, 663 juniors and 512 seniors. The survey included responses from 1,114 girls, 1,069 boys, 22 transgender or non-binary students and 64 students listed as “other.” It also included answers from parents at all grade levels from kindergarten to 12th grade.