Allegations against principal piled up
Jen Nowell / Daily Post
A former Palo Alto High School assistant principal wrote down about 25 allegations of sexual harassment from students and teachers over a three-year period against former school Principal Phil Winston before reporting it to the district, according to a report from federal officials. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, or OCR, revealed new details about the case from 2013, when it sent its final report to the Palo Alto school district on Wednesday after completing its investigation into sexual harassment cases at the district’s two high schools. In June 2013, a former assistant principal at the school met with a district official and told him she had concerns about Winston’s conduct, according to OCR’s report. The former assistant principal was not named, but OCR used the female pronoun. The school has four assistant principals.
Current Paly Principal Kim Diorio was one of the assistant principals at the time. Diorio did not return requests for comment yesterday.
The former assistant principal wrote down over a three-year period allegations from about 25 employees and teachers who either observed Winston’s behavior or were subject to his behavior. She had a spreadsheet of allegations, ranging from sexual comments being made to unwelcome hugs and touching, according to OCR.
“She stated that she had not reported the conduct earlier because she was uncertain about her obligation to do so and also had concerns about becoming the target of retaliation by the formal principal,” the report said.
Principal paid to resign
The district began investigating the claims, and even before the investigation was complete former Superintendent Kevin Skelly praised Winston’s performance and character in a newspaper article, OCR officials said.
Five days after the former assistant principal reported the allegations, Winston resigned from his post, but he denied any wrongdoing. Winston cited a “life-threatening” disease for his sudden resignation.
He was reassigned to a special education teaching position, and left the district in May 2015.
The district paid Winston $150,000 in return for his resignation and promise not to sue.
OCR found the former assistant principal should have taken immediate action when the allegations were first reported to her.
In its final report to the district, OCR found that in many instances the district failed to act promptly with its investigations and followup.
OCR’s initial investigations starting in 2013 and 2014 involved two cases — an assault between two Gunn High School students and an investigation into incidents reported in the student-produced Verde magazine at Palo Alto High School. An article in that magazine, titled “You can’t tell me I wasn’t raped,” claimed Paly has a “rape culture.”
These two cases prompted OCR to look into other incidents and policies within the district.
Prior to OCR releasing its findings, the school board approved an agreement with OCR on Feb. 28, which includes hiring an independent investigator to look into the reports. The district will also provide training to district and school employees on how to properly handle these cases.
Superintendent Max McGee said yesterday that he was not surprised by OCR’s findings given the conversations over the past few months.
In its report, OCR also looked into the district’s investigation of former Paly biology teacher Ronnie Farrell, who was arrested at the high school on June 15. He had arranged to meet his student at the school but he was instead met by police officers, authorities said.
The student had previously assisted Farrell in the classroom.
While talking, Farrell put his hands under the girl’s clothes and touched her breasts, police said. He also allegedly took one of her hands and placed it on his groin over his clothing.
The former science teacher appeared in court Jan. 6 where he pleaded no contest to three counts of child molestation.
OCR concluded the district acted promptly in immediately placing Farrell on unpaid leave, but did not initiate an investigation under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, until four months later.
Lack of followup
In other allegations of sexual harassment, OCR found that the district failed to investigate claims in a timely manner, and it failed to followup with students who filed the complaints to let them know of any outcomes.
In March 2014, a Gunn student reported that her ex-boyfriend was stalking her and at one point, assaulted her on her way home from school. The boy was arrested for the assault and a restraining order was granted.
OCR, however, found the district and the school failed to take actions to protect her while she was at school.
In another incident, in which no date was given, a student reported that while at a house party a boy locked her in the bathroom and assaulted her. The district followed up with both students and the students’ parents, but there is no documentation to prove the district finished its investigation, according to OCR.