Ex-Paly principal disciplined for harassment

Palo Alto Weekly staff / Palo Alto Online

Former Palo Alto High School principal Phil Winston, who resigned last June 13 citing health and "work-life balance" reasons, was under investigation at the time by school district officials for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior involving both staff and students, according to documents obtained by the Weekly from the district. 

The Palo Alto Unified School District's investigation substantiated most of the allegations, according to Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers, and on August 13 Winston was issued a formal "notice of unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance." He was also reassigned to a special education class at Jordan Middle School, where he is currently teaching.

The notice, which Bowers said was recommended and prepared by the district's lawyers, outlined six student- and four staff-related incidents that supported its conclusions, and stated four "directives," or actions required, of Winston to "correct these deficiencies immediately."

The actions included refraining from using profanity, sexual comments and innuendo, and derogatory terms; commenting on the physical attributes and the dress of students or colleagues; having any physical contact with students or staff; and engaging in actions and language that are flirtatious or sexual in nature. He was also directed to complete a sexual harassment prevention training within 90 days. (District records show Winston had attended mandatory supervisorial harassment trainings in 2009 and 2012.)

The notice warned Winston that his failure to implement the actions could result in "further disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal." 

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said in a written statement that he, the school board and district legal counsel determined that "the most appropriate course was to provide the employee with a corrective action plan—providing notice of unsatisfactory performance, clear guidelines on expected conduct, clear consequences if our expectations are not met, and clear provisions for assistance."

"While the behavior that was exhibited at Palo Alto High School was totally unacceptable, we have no reason to believe that the type of conduct that occurred there will be repeated," Skelly said in his statement. "We will continue to monitor the situation and make sure that our goal of achieving and maintaining a safe school environment for all students and staff is met."

In an interview Skelly said, "I wouldn't have put him (Winston) in the classroom if I thought he was a threat to kids." He described the actions taken as "the most serious consequence we could have (imposed), given the law and given the Ed Code." 

Winston declined to be interviewed for this story, but in written responses to Bowers during the investigation he offered denials or different interpretations of his behavior from those of the primary complainant and witnesses. After being notified of the district's intent to release the documents to the Weekly, on March 19 he also submitted the following statement:

"It is important to note that the statements and inferences contained in the packet lack context and are as a result highly misleading. They inaccurately represent me and my character. In addition, they do not represent my performance over time, but rather highlight a short period of time during which I was under extreme pressure, stress and had personal challenges. I am disappointed that I did not take better care of myself. Although it's not reflected in the date of my resignation letter, I had shared with key personnel my intent to resign before these allegations were presented. I encourage you to read my responses contained in the packet."

The allegations against Winston were contained in a written report made by a Paly staff member who came forward in June, in notes of subsequent interviews with the complainant and four other staff members conducted by Bowers and Associate Superintendent Charles Young, and in an unsolicited email to Skelly, apparently from a parent.

Bowers said in a case like this he consults with legal counsel, conducts an investigation and seeks to substantiate the allegations through at least one "credible adult witness." He then turns over all the information to the lawyers, who then decide what should be done, he said.

The identities of the complainant and witnesses were redacted from documents released to the Weekly, and the Weekly has made further redactions in the documents it has posted online with this story to provide additional protection to these individuals.

The identities were not revealed to Winston, nor was Winston shown any of the documentation until recently, Bowers said. In mid-March, after the Weekly had requested the records, the district provided Winston with copies of the same materials (with identifying information redacted) a week prior to giving them to the Weekly, to allow Winston time to challenge the release of the materials, which he did not do.

No students were interviewed as part of the investigation, according to Bowers, because "we had the information from the adults that overheard it, we had confirmation that these things were said." One of the interviewed Paly staff members, however, was asked to contact a specific student to confirm a particularly graphic verbal interaction she said she had with Winston in spring 2012.

According to the staff member, the girl said she, her boyfriend and Winston had been talking in the library and the boyfriend left. Winston then said to the girl, "You know how to get your boyfriend to do what you want? You need to sit on him, whip him, and wrap your legs around his head." The girl told the staff member that she thought what he said was "icky" but let it go. 

In his reply to the district, Winston said, "I do not remember exactly what I said, but I am absolutely confident I did not say you need to sit on his face, but rather something like, 'Make sure you stay on him and make sure he gets his work done.'" (Initially Bowers had reported to Winston that the girl had stated Winston had used the words "sit on his face.")

The allegations from the adults interviewed included some as general and subjective as complaints about "sophomoric" comments, "arrested adolescent," "stupid and ridiculous" or "erratic" behavior, but also discomfort about being alone with him due to his flirtatiousness and occasional unwanted hugs and neck or back rubbing. He was also said to have been dismissive of one colleague by telling her to "stop thinking like a mom" on numerous occasions. 

The specific student-related incidents, witnessed by or reported to staff members, included Winston allegedly asking students leaving early from a May 21 talk at Paly by Eve Ensler, playwright and author of The Vagina Monologues, "Hey, where are you going? This is about vaginas. Don't you want to hear about vaginas?"

In Winston's written response to Bowers he said, "While I do not recall my exact words, I do remember saying something like 'Why are you leaving? This is about vagina monologues.'"

The Ensler talk, which included a panel of Paly journalism students, was billed as a "way to extend the conversation about 'rape culture' that was raised in Verde (a student magazine) last month," according to an email to parents by journalism teacher and Verde advisor Paul Kandell.

Another example cited was Winston asking a student if her "friend's boobs hurt when she was running naked through the quad," referring to one of the many streaking incidents that occurred on the campus in May 2013.

Winston's response to Bowers about the incident stated: "During brunch one day there was a group of at least 10 female streakers. I was walking through the quad as the streakers ran across the front area of the senior deck. As I made my way to the senior deck, I said, 'Gosh, that looks painful. That must hurt their boobs.'"

Winston also acknowledged on occasion telling girls wearing shorts that "your butt cheeks are hanging out, that is not appropriate." He said students "continually push these limits of decency and expose themselves," and that "many staff members have consistently expressed concerns to administration about students' body parts showing or hanging out, so this was done in support of staff with the purpose of creating a safe learning and teaching environment for all."

One staff member, who stated he or she had gotten to the point of not wanting to meet with Winston alone, recounted Winston referring to a male colleague as a "pansy" and his describing a particular student as "popular with white girls…because of his black dong," according to Bowers' interview notes provided the Weekly.

The initial allegations against Winston came on June 5 from a Palo Alto High School staff member who felt a "duty to report the many incidences that have been brought to me by numerous staff members." After a meeting with Associate Superintendent Young, who is the district's designated uniform complaint and Title IX "compliance officer," the complainant gave district officials a five-page memo detailing Winston's behavior, including inappropriate touching of both staff and students, verbal sexual harassment, flirtatious behavior, and creating a "hostile work environment" by not taking effective steps to stop student streaking, which had exploded during the month of May.

Also, shortly after Winston resigned Superintendent Kevin Skelly received a letter from what appears to be a parent dated June 24 reacting with concern to the news that Winston had requested a transfer back to the classroom.

Describing two incidents a year earlier, in spring 2012, while walking with Winston on campus during the lunch hour, the parent wrote:

"Phil saw an obviously distressed teen girl walking with an adult. He went up to her and told her he wished her well…while standing close in to her, face to face, and stroking her arm up and down repeatedly from shoulder to below the elbow.

"A few minutes later he went up to a group of girls, one of whom had just gotten an extra pierce in her ear. The other girls were exclaiming over the piercing; Mr. Winston again stood close and began playing with the girl's ear lobe and twisting various earrings, and did the same with a second girl in the group while bantering. One of the girls stepped back; Mr. Winston only moved closer and kept playing with earrings."

The parent ended the letter to Skelly: "But now that I see that Mr. Winston may return to the classrooms in which he will be alone with students, I feel an ethical responsibility to contact you to share these observations in the hope that Mr. Winston can be helped to make better choices in the interest both of students he will serve, and in respect for his own career."

The Weekly was provided the documents in response to a January 22 Public Records Act request for copies of any complaints alleging misconduct and disciplinary records pertaining to Winston and five other district employees. Under state law, such documents are separate from an employee's personnel file and are considered public documents if the complaints are substantial in nature and pertain to a senior-level school official. The 30 pages released were redacted to protect the identities of complainants and witnesses.

The documents provided included an email sent June 4 to the Paly leadership team (Winston, administrators and all of the Instructional Supervisors) by a another staff person alarmed about student streaking and the emotional safety of students and staff on the campus. (See sidebar.)

The email was sent the day after the district was notified of a "compliance review" investigation by the federal Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights into whether Paly provides a "nondiscriminatory educational environment free of sexual harassment," and "whether it responds promptly and effectively to complaints or other notice of sexual harassment of students." (See sidebar.)

The district's investigation of the complaints about Winston was limited to talking with the complainant and four other staff members. No written report, other than notes of interviews, was prepared. Bowers said that Lozano, the district's lawyer, guided the entire process, briefed the school board and prepared the August 13 notification letter to Winston. 

School board members were briefed on the allegations by Skelly, Bowers and Lozano in a closed session in June. According to school board member Dana Tom, who was president of the board at the time, the board was also provided a copy of the documents for "review and inspection."

Winston's move to Jordan was noted as an information item on the agenda for the August 9 board meeting with an effective date of August 12.

According to Bowers, Winston is now "co-teaching" special education at Jordan, with either another teacher and an aide, or in the case of one class, two aides.

In a prepared statement to the Weekly on Wednesday, Tom said the board "authorized the requested reassignment to a classroom position after thoroughly considering the circumstances, the employee's record as a district teacher, and the employee's legal rights. He has been successful in meeting the district's high performance and behavioral expectation in his current teaching position."

School board president Barb Mitchell added in her own statement, "When people make mistakes, whether they are employees or students, our community expects prompt, informed and fair responses from school district officials, and this is what took place."

Skelly and Lozano both told the Weekly there was no agreement or "deal" made with Winston or the primary complainant about how the situation would be resolved.

"Personnel matters of this nature are always sensitive involving the rights of the employee, the rights of the staff and students and the public's right to information, all of which requires careful balancing," Skelly's prepared statement said. "We believe that in this instance all those rights were considered and protected."

To illustrate the legal issues the district faced, Lozano provided the Weekly with a document he authored describing past rulings and court decisions limiting the ability for a school district to successfully suspend or terminate a certificated employee under the Education Code.

In coming forward, the original Palo Alto High School staff complainant expressed great discomfort and a fear of retaliation, and conveyed similar fears of other staff members.

"The information that I have known and been made aware of has caused me many sleepless nights, yet as I explained, I feared retaliation from (redacted) Phil Winston," the memo said, explaining why he or she had not come forward earlier.

"I bring this information forward as my duty to report and in hope that the district will conduct their own fair investigation on this matter.

"It is my belief that if an investigation were conducted, many staff members would add examples that have been upsetting and hurtful to them and/or resulted in an unsafe learning/working environment for the students and staff at Palo Alto High School," the memo said.

"While I have great concerns about Phil Winston's general competence in his role and how this relates to our upcoming WASC (accreditation) process and the Title IX investigation…the immediate issue that I hope to see resolved is improving the climate for women and girls on our campus."

The memo included a list of 30 staff members (redacted in the copy provided the Weekly) who had "spoken directly to me concerning Principal Winston's inappropriate behavior and general concerns regarding his competence." Twenty of them were noted with asterisks as having personally "witnessed sexually harassing behavior" with colleagues, themselves or students.

"I have had many conversations over the last 3 years with staff members from all departments about numerous insensitive, inappropriate, and sexually harassing comments I have witnessed or others have witnessed involving our Principal, Phil Winston," the memo stated.

Records show that Young met with the Paly staff member on June 6. Young, who as the district's compliance officer is responsible for investigating complaints about sexual harassment involving students, sent a memo the next day summarizing the meeting to Skelly, and the issue was turned over to Bowers to investigate as a personnel matter.

The following day, Friday, June 7, Bowers met separately with both the complainant and Winston.

On Monday, June 10, Bowers informed the complainant his or her allegations were being taken very seriously, and he began contacting witnesses to confirm them. 

On June 12, Bowers gave Winston a short written summary of six specific allegations about his inappropriate comments to students, and said he would share it with the school board in closed session as soon as he received Winston's response.

On June 13, Winston submitted his resignation to Skelly, stating that he had made "significant sacrifices as a father, spouse, and person in order to fully and successfully fulfill my duties to the District" and that "my passion has always been the classroom, and I am thrilled about going back."

At the time, Skelly told the Weekly Winston had "done a great job with kids and parents."

"We appreciate (Winston's) deep dedication and strong service to our community in this role," Skelly said. "He's just worked really hard on the environment at the school. His smiling face on the campus, his approach to the work has been really positive." 

On June 14, Winston submitted to Bowers a point-by-point rebuttal of the statements cited in Bowers' June 12 memo which contradicted much of the information provided by the complainant and witnesses, stating that his conduct had been "misinterpreted." He also stated that "had this information been shared with me [at the time, I would have been eager to resolve any concerns or make any adjustments if necessary."

After that, the only documented action was the August letter to Winston with the formal "unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance" notice, and a subsequent response from Winston. 

School board agendas indicate that the board met in closed session on June 18 regarding an unspecified employee discipline matter, then again on Aug. 1 to appoint Kim Diorio as the new principal at Paly and on Aug. 9 about an employee discipline item. 

Winston took over as principal at Paly in fall, 2010, after serving as an assistant principal at Gunn for three years. He immediately began putting his own imprint on the culture of the school to make it more student-centric and reversing the stricter disciplinary style of former principal Jacqueline McEvoy. Many students referred to Winston as "Chill Phil," and teachers recalled welcoming his energy, charm and desire to create a new atmosphere on campus.

While he was very popular with many students and parents, and initially viewed by staff as a "breath of fresh air," he became increasingly isolated and alienated from the school's staff, according to interviews with both teachers and classified staff, most of whom insisted on anonymity. Some teachers were concerned about his lax approach to student discipline, which they felt was eroding the overall climate and accountability for misbehavior, while others cited an increasing tendency toward non-communication with staff and arbitrary, unilateral actions. 

Other staff interviewed by the Weekly expressed a reluctance to report concerns, including fears that nothing would be done, even at the district office level, and that speaking up would only make the situation worse.

"The culture wasn't there to support the teacher," one teacher said. 

The best course often was seen as staying silent, for their own protection.

Young voiced concern to the Weekly about the complainant's and others' expressed fear of reporting and retaliation. "That's something that we take really seriously. Absolutely. We never want to cultivate a culture where people felt like they couldn't report things and feel supported in that process...The district supports that, we have a legal responsibility to support it, and anybody feeling that way, we absolutely take that very seriously."

Members of Paly's administration team, including Principal Kim Diorio, declined to discuss Winston or the allegations made against him. 

Reporting and editing for this story was done by Chris Kenrick, Terri Lobdell, Jocelyn Dong and Bill Johnson.

Read the original article here.

Carolyn Pires