Report: 'timely' but 'flawed' response to 2015 sex assault

Elena Kadvany / Palo Alto Weekly

A law firm has found that the Palo Alto school district responded promptly but failed to take the legally required steps to investigate and assess the impact of a reported 2015 on-campus sexual assault on the alleged victim, then a junior at Palo Alto High School.

The March 13 report, released under a Public Records Act request but heavily redacted, was compiled by Cozen O'Connor at the district's request and in response to concerns from the female student and her family that the district mishandled the case. 

The report found practices and failures similar to those outlined in an investigation Cozen O'Connor conducted last year into an alleged sexual assault involving two students at Paly in 2016, including missing documentation, a lack of oversight by the district's Title IX office and a prompt but "ad hoc" response by school administrators.

In November 2015, the Paly junior reported to a teacher that a male Paly senior had sexually assaulted her on the quad during school hours two weeks before, according to the female student. Her name is being withheld to protect her privacy.

The Cozen O'Connor lawyers found that the district responded promptly by initially providing her with unspecified interim measures (that section of the report is redacted), reporting the incident to law enforcement and taking "some steps" to investigate what took place. But on the whole, the report states, the investigation was "inadequate."

The investigation was not documented and the school failed to determine whether the female student was experiencing a hostile environment at school as a result of the alleged assault, which is required under federal civil rights law Title IX. The female student's father said that the school failed to realize that the two students shared a class, which his daughter, feeling unsafe, didn't attend until the male student was removed. Her mental health also suffered as a result of the alleged incident, she and her father said. 

Paly also did not notify the female student and her family of their right under district policy and federal law to file a complaint through the Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP), a district process for investigating discrimination-based complaints.

There was no written investigation report, a misstep that makes it "difficult to ensure that the context of the conduct or the requirements of Title IX ... are fully considered," the lawyers found. 

There is no indication that Paly applied the legally required standard of proof in Title IX cases — the preponderance of evidence, or whether it's more likely than not that the alleged conduct occurred — and it is also unclear who determined whether the male student was responsible for committing the alleged conduct, the report states. Paly also did not follow up with law enforcement to see if additional information had been gathered or whether criminal charges would be filed, the lawyers found. (The police department forwarded the case to the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office, according to the female student's father, but it is unclear if formal charges were filed against the male student.)

The report states that Paly "followed its procedures for disciplinary action" under state law, but details about discipline are redacted. 

And while Paly provided a written notice of outcome on the case to the male student, the school failed to do the same for the female student, as is required under district policy and law. 

"While administrators were involved in supporting" the female student, "the efforts were ad hoc, rather than coordinated or tied to a demonstrated understanding of Title IX obligations," the lawyers wrote.

The female student's father has been particularly critical of the lack of response from then-principal Kim Diorio and Adam Paulson, then an assistant principal, to his concerns about the school's response and his daughter's well-being at school. Diorio has since resigned and Paulson was appointed as her replacement

District and school administrators failed to evaluate the "appropriateness and sufficiency" of unidentified remedial measures, the report states.

The lawyers found there was "no coordinated oversight" of the investigation by the Title IX office, which was then led by Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade. Wade, who left the district last year, was similarly criticized in Cozen O'Connor's report on the 2016 incident.

The female student's father said the Cozen O'Connor lawyers informed him that Paly administrators did not notify the district office of his daughter's report, as required under district policy and law.

The 2015 report is heavily redacted to protect student privacy. The names of the administrators involved in the case were not released. In the 2016 case, the involved Paly and district administrators were not initially identified in the law firm's report, but their names were later released at a school board meeting.

In footnotes, the Cozen O'Connor lawyers note that some of the missteps in the case, including improperly documenting investigations and not providing the written outcome notices to both parties, have been addressed by new leadership at the Title IX office. In the wake of the 2016 sexual-assault incident, which was publicly reported before the 2015 case was, the district hired a new, full-time Title IX coordinator.

The Cozen O'Connor lawyers note that at the time of the 2015 incident, the district was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for alleged Title IX violations at both Paly and Gunn High School. This "should have led to a heightened awareness of and attention to Title IX obligations and responsibilities," the report states.

The Office for Civil Rights found last year that the district repeatedly failed to "promptly and equitably" respond to and investigate reports of sexual harassment and assault on and off its campuses, in violation of Title IX. 

The federal agency is currently monitoring the district as it reforms relevant policies and practices as required by a resolution agreement.

Read the original article here.

Carolyn Pires