Ruling due on Monday in robotics team sex harassment case

Gunn High School, 780 Arastradero Road. PAUSD photo.

Daily Post Staff Writer

A judge is set to decide Monday (March 25) whether to continue a temporary ban that’s keeping a Gunn High School student from the school’s prestigious robotics team after he sexually harassed a teammate in class, at lunch and via text messages.

But it may take until the end of the two teenagers’ junior year — or even into their senior year — for Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Helen Williams to decide whether the boy can permanently re-join the team.

Attorneys for the girl, the boy and the Palo Alto Unified School District have agreed to go to mediation, but that process hasn’t begun yet, according to the girl’s attorney, Crystal Riggins.

“None of the parties want to be back in court, you know, in August dealing with these same things,” Riggins told the Post. “We want to see what we can do, but it may be that we’re not able to resolve all issues.”

And it’s unclear whether the outcome of that mediation would pre-empt Williams’ decision on the girl’s petition to force the district to ban the boy from the team. Williams’ decision on the petition is set to come out May 30.

“One of the things that sort of complicates all of this is kind of what are the claims, and what are the things that need to be resolved,” Riggins said. “All parties would like to see if a resolution is possible.”

The two teens dated briefly during their sophomore year, but the girl broke up with the boy after he allegedly forced her to perform a sex act in January 2018.

After the breakup, the boy started to harass the girl through vulgar text messages and obscene, insulting comments in front of other students at school, an allegation that was confirmed by a school district investigation.

Because the alleged assault took place off-campus, the district didn’t investigate it.

On Nov. 5, district officials told the two students that the boy wouldn’t be allowed to participate in the robotics team’s after-school Build Team starting in January 2019. Both the boy and girl are on the team.

A speech disability

His parents fought the decision with the state Office of Administrative Hearings, which found that the district failed to hold a “manifestation meeting” to determine whether the harassment was related to the boy’s pragmatic speech disability, also known as social communication disorder.

Under disability law, that precludes the district from imposing any discipline on the boy that would last longer than 10 days.

On Jan. 18, administrators told the girl’s parents that they would be allowing the boy back on the team. They offered to provide an “escort” at robotics team activities, which the girl’s attorneys said was inadequate protection.

The girl then petitioned the court to force the district to reverse its decision, banning the boy from the team once again. On Jan. 25, a judge temporarily removed the boy from the team, pending the outcome of the case.

Many documents in the case are sealed

In recent weeks, many of the case documents have been filed under seal, keeping them out of the public eye.

Riggins said attorneys and Williams discussed yesterday the possibility of closing the courtroom to the public as well, to address the difficulty of discussing the case without revealing private information about minors.

“Everyone in that courtroom wants to protect these two minors,” Riggins said. “Walking that line becomes a little bit difficult, and we were able to do so today.”