Palo Alto school district faulted in the handling of Paly sex assault

The incident was investigated by Cozen O'Connor attorneys Gina Maisto Smith, left, and Leslie Gomez.
The incident was investigated by Cozen O'Connor attorneys Gina Maisto Smith, left, and Leslie Gomez.

BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer

Administrators at Palo Alto High School and the Palo Alto school district mishandled a sexual assault case 11 months before a well-publicized October 2016 assault, according to a heavily redacted report by outside attorneys obtained by the Post yesterday (June 11).

A female Paly student reported being assaulted by a male classmate on the school’s quad while the two sat on a bench in November 2015, less than a year before a 17-year-old baseball player is said to have made a younger female classmate to perform oral sex on him in a bathroom at the school in October 2016.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated both reports as it looked into repeated issues with the district’s compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which intends to protect students at federally funded schools from gender discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault.

In accordance with a March 2017 agreement between the district and the Office for Civil Rights, the district hired the law firm Cozen O’Connor to review the district’s response to both assault reports in light of federal law, including the ways in which the district investigated the allegations and informed the students of their legal rights.

In the new report, which was sent to Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks three months ago, Cozen lawyers Gina Maisto Smith and Leslie Gomez found that the district had promptly responded to the November 2015 assault report, reported the incident to police, took “some” steps to investigate and provided “adequate” interim measures while the investigation was pending.

No coordination

But the attorneys found that the district’s investigation was inadequate and there was no coordinated oversight by the district’s Title IX coordinator, Holly Wade, who has since left the district and been hired as an assistant superintendent at Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay.

“In light of these observations, we recommend that the district ensure that future reports of sexual assault or harassment are adequately investigated by a trained and/or experienced investigator, that a determination is reached by a preponderance of the evidence, that the investigation is documented in a written investigation report and that written notice of outcome is provided to both a complainant and respondent,” Smith and Gomez wrote.

More training urged

The Cozen lawyers also recommended that the district provide all employees with training related to their responsibilities under Title IX, “particularly as it relates to the provision of interim or ongoing remedial measures and the obligations to communicate and coordinate with the district’s Title IX coordinator in appropriate cases.”

Smith and Gomez went on to urge the district to ensure that the Title IX coordinator has visibility into, and some oversight of, supports provided to those who report sexual harassment assault and the accused.
The lawyers also recommended that designated school-level administrators be “actively engaged” with the Title IX coordinator.

The November 2015 victim’s father, who the Post is not naming to protect his daughter’s privacy, pointed out, as he put it, a “laundry list of things the school did not do” to appropriately respond to his daughter’s assault.

Hendricks, who is interim superintendent until the newly hired Don Austin takes over July 1, didn’t return a request for comment.

2 Comments

  1. It would be interesting to know when the Cozen attorneys’ report, which according to this article was received by the school district three months ago, was written. In 2011 the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools which receive federal funds advising that determinations in cases of alleged sexual misconduct be based on “a preponderance of the evidence.” However, last year the DOE reversed itself, rescinding its earlier “preponderance of the evidence” advice.

  2. The administration won’t learn anything from this. Notice how they scapegoated Holly Wade. What about her boss, Max McGee? and the board? Was she going rogue here, and keeping them in the dark?

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