School district asks for help settling robotics team sex harassment case

Gunn High School

Daily Post Staff Writer

The Palo Alto school district is asking a judge to turn down a Gunn High School student’s request to permanently remove a boy from the robotics team who she said sexually assaulted her, then taunted her about the attack for months.

The school board voted 4-1 behind closed doors yesterday (Feb. 5), with board member Ken Dauber dissenting, to have the district’s attorneys file papers in court tomorrow asking the judge to refer the matter to mediation.

“PAUSD is in the untenable position of weighing conflicting and complex points of law,” Superintendent Don Austin said in a statement. “In this case, the district is welcoming the assistance of the court to navigate available options.”

Austin said that “new information” had led the district to allow the boy back on Gunn’s after-school robotics team on Jan. 18. The victim is also on the team.

On Jan. 25, a judge ruled that the boy be temporarily banned from the robotics team until the matter is decided in court.

According to a petition filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by the girl’s attorneys on Jan. 25, the boy forced the 16-year-old girl to perform a sex act on him in January 2018, after they had dated for two months.

The girl was “horrified and shaken by the incident” and broke up with the boy, according to the girl’s attorneys, Crystal Riggins and Laura Riparbelli of the San Jose firm Hoge, Fenton, Jones and Appel.

The boy then started to publicly humiliate and degrade the girl at Gunn and sent her obscene, insulting text messages in May, according to court documents.

On June 6, the girl filed a complaint with the district’s Title IX office, which investigates issues around federal gender discrimination law, including sexual harassment and assault.

Four months later, a district investigation found that the boy had sexually harassed the girl, so administrators told the boy that he could have no contact with the girl and was therefore banned from the robotics team.

The alleged sex assault happened off campus and wasn’t part of the district’s decision.

Escort offered

District reverses decision Administrators reversed their decision on Jan. 18 and offered her an “escort” at robotics team activities where the boy would be present, which the attorneys said was inadequate protection.

The other option was for the girl and boy to continue on the team, but trade off days when they could attend so they wouldn’t see each other.

Austin said the district’s process of investigating the complaint, “from the time of the original complaint through our present status,” would be outlined for the public once filed with the court. “The Palo Alto Unified School District has an obligation, both legally and ethically, to protect and advance the rights of every student,” Superintendent Austin said in a statement. “We take that responsibility seriously.”

District spends on litigation

The district spent almost $6 million on lawyers between 2013 and 2018.

Board President Jennifer DiBrienza said she didn’t have an opinion on why the district engages in so much litigation.

“I don’t really have that much to compare it to,” DiBrienza said.

Former school board member Mandy Lowell told the Post that in cases involving students, the public doesn’t see most of the story.

“These kind of interpersonal things, there is always more than is initially known,” former school board member Mandy Lowell told the Post. “There’s often this whole backstory that they all know.”