Palo Alto High School student accused of on-campus sexual assault

Elena Kadvany / Palo Alto Weekly

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify information about the male student's juvenile court conviction.

A male Palo Alto High School student is facing at least three sexual assault allegations, including that he forced a female Paly student to perform oral sex on him on campus in October, local TV news station KTVU reported on Wednesday night.

According to KTVU, the 14-year old freshman victim's family says the unnamed male student was convicted in juvenile court of oral copulation by force, violence, duress, menace or fear in a campus bathroom. Juvenile court proceedings are sealed and the Weekly has been unable to confirm the charges filed or how the case was adjudicated.

Superintendent Max McGee, however, said Friday afternoon there was no felony conviction of forced oral copulation on campus nor with a Palo Alto Unified student. A notification the district received in late January from the juvenile justice department about the student stemmed from an off-campus incident, McGee said.

KTVU reported two other allegations against the same male student: a 15-year-old who said he forced her to perform oral sex on him in a Palo Alto church bathroom in 2015 and another alleged victim who said he sexually assaulted her at a house party in Redwood City in January 2016. 

KTVU said that the Paly freshman reported the campus assault to school administrators shortly after it occurred. But school board President Terry Godfrey said that the October incident was not characterized at the time as a sexual assault by the reporting parties nor school staff and was "handled as a discipline case." 

The male student still attends Paly, Superintendent Max McGee confirmed to the Weekly. 

One of the other two sexual assault allegations about the male student, reported by a person outside of the Palo Alto school district, Godfrey said, triggered the opening of a Title IX investigation in March. The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer, which has conducted previous Title IX inquiries for the district, is leading the investigation, McGee said. 

McGee declined to answer questions about the allegations, citing the fact that students involved are minors.

He declined to say why an investigation hadn't started months earlier related to the alleged on-campus assault. Under federal law, the district is required to immediately investigate reports of sexual violence, make findings and share those findings with the complainant, as well as determine if an incident created a hostile educational environment.

McGee also declined to comment on any disciplinary decisions, although the district's communications coordinator told KTVU that "administrators took appropriate disciplinary action." In a message sent to parents and staff on Thursday evening, McGee wrote that the district's "investigation into these allegations is still ongoing."

He told the Weekly he has asked staff to prepare a detailed "timeline" of events going back to the first report in October. 

Godfrey said the board has also "asked staff for clarification on the timelines and communications flows to better understand their process.

"The primary concern now," she added, "is keeping kids safe and completing a thorough investigation to understand if this has affected other students. And if it has, supporting those students and restoring a safe environment at the school."

Vice President Ken Dauber said that to his knowledge, the district has not yet completed a Title IX investigation on this case.

"This case underscores the importance of improving the district's Title IX compliance," Dauber told the Weekly. "I'm concerned that the required timeline and investigation may not have been done in a timely manner."

The female student, whose identity is concealed in the KTVU story, said she had a class with the older student. "Innocent flirtation" evolved into "unwanted physical touching, stalking behavior and Snapchatting nude pictures of himself," according to KTVU. In October, they met in a bathroom at Paly, where kissing turned into a sexual assault. 

Paly Principal Kim Diorio also declined to comment, directing inquiries to the district’s communications coordinator. She told student news outlet the Paly Voice Thursday, however, that the administration could not alert students about the allegations due to the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student privacy.

"There's a lot of information we can't share because of confidentiality and privacy," Diorio told the Paly Voice. "But we do everything proactively behind the scenes to make sure that that person doesn't pose a risk to anyone on the campus."

She also said that if a student is convicted of a crime but is not in juvenile hall, "They have the right to be here and we have the right to educate that person and make sure that they are not a danger or threat to anyone else on this campus."

McGee said he reported the allegations on Thursday to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is currently monitoring the district for its failure to properly investigate several cases of sexual misconduct and violence involving both students and staff at Paly and Gunn high schools. McGee said he is unsure if other staff notified the Office for Civil Rights earlier. 

The federal agency launched its investigation in Palo Alto Unified in 2013 in response to Paly student publication Verde Magazine's investigation into "rape culture" at the school. The story detailed anonymous accounts of off-campus sexual assaults and students' attitudes around rape and victim blaming.

In his message Thursday, McGee urged parents and students who have "been harassed or threatened or even feels unsafe or at risk" to immediately notify a counselor, administrator, teacher, wellness worker or him personally at superintendent@pausd.org.

"We're putting the safety and wellness of our kids first,” he told the Weekly. "As we hear of victims, again, not only are we going to be sympathetic but we are committed to providing and assuring a full range of supports for any and all victims."

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