Outside attorneys: Administrators didn’t follow law or board policy when investigating sex assault at Paly

Palo Alto High School
Palo Alto High School

Daily Post Staff Writer

Administrators failed to promptly or thoroughly investigate an on-campus sexual assault at Palo Alto High School last year, according to a scathing report by a law firm tasked with investigating Palo Alto Unified School District’s response to the attack.

After a four-month investigation, law firm Cozen O’Connor found that school administrators violated board policy as well as federal law by failing to properly investigate or document the inquiry into a 14-year-old girl’s sexual assault by a 17-year-old baseball player in a school bathroom.

Administrators didn’t thoroughly interview the girl or her attacker, failed to obtain written statements from either party and did not record or document interviews with either. Text messages weren’t collected as evidence and, perhaps most damning, the district waited five months to initiate a complaint under the Uniform Complaint Procedures.

A Paly assistant principal also interviewed the girl over the phone with her parent present, which likely influenced the information she was willing to share, according to the report.

The district had already hired the firm on May 11 to investigate its compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 after an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights. Within three weeks, the investigation was broadened to include a review of the specific assault at Paly.

Blame at the top

Superintendent Max McGee and former Assistant Superintendent for School Support Services Holly Wade, who left the district on June 9, were the first administrators to be criticized in the report for botching the response to the assault.

Last week, board Vice President Ken Dauber and trustee Todd Collins called for McGee’s firing after closed-door meetings about his job performance.

Wade was responsible for the district’s compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

Some of the initial response to the assault report was appropriately prompt, according to the report. A wellness center counselor informed the school resource officer and an assistant principal, who informed the principal. While names weren’t named in the report, the principal at Paly was Kim Diorio.

Diorio and two assistant principals told Wade the same day they received the report.

Federal process wasn’t followed

But administrators failed to offer the student her procedural options in the federally mandated Uniform Complaint Process, and failed to notify the girl or her assailant of the outcome of the investigation.

The report also notes that the district did not coordinate and integrate the enforcement of federal law, state law and board policies. Since then, the district has updated its board policies to comply with federal law.

The report found that documentation and record keeping was inconsistent, impacting the Title IX coordinator’s ability to track and monitor “patterns, climate and culture.”

Victim harassed

An assistant principal also failed to connect harassment the girl faced at school after the attack with the attack itself, or to “elevate the information at an administrative team meeting” or share the information with another assistant principal who had overseen the response to the attack.

When a school or district knows about sexual harassment that creates a hostile environment, the institution “must take immediate and appropriate steps” to investigate, the report says.

“Based on training and practice, a common practice was to communicate by telephone or text message to avoid creating documentation that could potentially be publicly released,” the report notes.

The report’s findings will be discussed publicly at a special board meeting at 4 p.m. today (Sept. 21) at the district office at 25 Churchill Ave. The report can be viewed at the following link: goo.gl/9CDmzK.