When will it end? This question is weighing heavily on the minds of many parents and students in Palo Alto, who have had to contend with a string of recently reported sexual improprieties in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). Sexual misconduct should never occur, and yet it has continued to plague the District. Former Palo Alto High School principal Phil Winston was disciplined for inappropriate verbal and physical behavior towards students and resigned in June 2013. Paly English teacher Kevin Sharp resigned in November 2015 after having an inappropriate relationship with a recently graduated student. Michael Airo, an Ohlone Elementary School teacher, was arrested in February for reportedly molesting an 11-year-old girl in repeated incidents that are said to have occurred over a decade ago. Most recently, Paly chemistry and biology teacher Ronnie Farrell was taken into custody on June 15 for allegedly groping a 15-year-old girl in his classroom on campus.
One report of sexual impropriety is shocking, but four over the course of three years suggests a much more troubling pattern. Many Palo Alto residents are feeling uneasy about the recent incidents in PAUSD. Students should not have to fear for their safety when attending class, but unfortunately, some are starting to. The Campanile would thus like to share an in-depth view of teacher sexual impropriety in the hopes of shedding light on and remedying this issue.
For most of his tenure as principal, Winston was well-liked by students. However, allegations surfaced in 2013 that he was making vulgar comments to female seniors. Winston was soon reprimanded for phrases like “[streaking] must hurt their boobs” and “don’t you want to hear about vaginas?” in addition to unsolicited physical contact with students and coworkers.
Winston resigned as Paly principal in June 2013 — while the school was investigating him for his behavior — and was served with a “Notice of Unprofessional Conduct and Unsatisfactory Performance” in August of that year.
After completing a mandatory harassment training, Winston was reassigned to teach special education at Jordan Middle School beginning in fall 2013. PAUSD residents were only notified of the reprimands in 2014 because of an inquiry by the Palo Alto Weekly, which used the Public Records Act to release information pertaining to the case.
Then-superintendent Kevin Skelly said that he had “no reason to believe that the conduct that occurred at Paly [would] be repeated” at Jordan. Nonetheless, Winston was pushed by the District to resign, which he eventually did in June 2015, after receiving a $150,000 severance package.
Sharp apparently focused on cultivating a sexual relationship with a single student over the course of the 2013-14 school year. Sharp “groomed”, or began preparing for a relationship after graduation, a female student through personal meetings both inside and outside of his class; the two started a consensual relationship seven days after the student graduated. Since the student was 18 years old upon graduating, the relationship was legal.
The parents of the student brought formal allegations against Sharp in September 2014, stating that Sharp had used his position as a teacher to groom their daughter in preparation for a sexual relationship after graduation.
On July 21, 2015, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers issued a “Notice of Unprofessional Conduct” that condemned Sharp’s interactions with the student. These interactions included unprofessional meetings with the student outside of class, lightly touching the student on the arm and discussing the student’s feelings about a relationship with an older person.
After more investigation, the Board of Education approved Sharp’s resignation agreement on October 31, 2015. Like Winston, Sharp also received a $150,000 severance package.
A fourth and fifth grade teacher with a reputation for providing extensive attention to students and being a favorite among parents, Airo was arrested on Jan. 13 for one count of continuous sexual abuse of a child and three counts of lewd or lascivious acts on a child.
Airo is alleged to have sexually assaulted the daughter of his former girlfriend by inappropriately touching the girl in the shower when she was between the ages of 11 and 13 from 2002-2005. The girl first came into contact with him at an after school daycare program at El Carmelo Elementary School, and Airo was not employed as a teacher at Ohlone until 2008. In May 2014, the victim, who is now in her twenties, came forward to local authorities, who launched a subsequent investigation against Airo, culminating in a January arrest warrant.
After posting $500,000 bail, waiving two arraignments and pleading not guilty (on April 18) to all charges, Airo is still employed as a teacher in PAUSD. Though the Board unanimously decided on Feb. 9 that Airo’s employment should be terminated, the firing process has yet to be completed.
Farrell faces six counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a minor and three counts of sexual battery, and has an arraignment scheduled for August 15. After being booked into the Santa Clara County Main Jail on June 15, he posted $250,000 bail that same evening.
Students say that Farrell was a popular teacher on Paly’s campus, where he could be seen teaching science during class periods and playing soccer at lunch. On the evening of June 15, he was arrested for allegedly groping a 15-year-old girl, one of his freshman students during the past school year, after asking her to meet him in his classroom on June 7, five days after the end of the school year. Another incident, wherein Farrell hugged the student for an extended period of time, is said to have occurred on June 3.
Farrell purportedly communicated with the victim via social media. After the initial meetup, the victim’s parents contacted the Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD), who went in place of her to the second meeting and arrested Farrell on the Paly campus.
Community Perception and Response
The four recently reported staff-student sexual impropriety incidents in PAUSD are making some students anxious. After hearing about Farrell’s arrest, Emiko Eisnor-Kho, a rising sophomore who will attend a different school next year, explained that she would not return to Paly next year even if she could.
“The incident with Mr. Farrell has reminded me of the other situations,” Eisnor-Kho said. “I would not feel comfortable going back into Paly sophomore year trusting all of the adults.”
Members of the Palo Alto community also heavily criticized PAUSD’s handling of impropriety since the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year. Comments posted on Palo Alto Online articles covering the four cases are, for the most part, disapproving of administration’s actions.
“This entire story is disgusting, as is the district response,” wrote an anonymous reader in reference to an investigation by the Palo Alto Weekly on the Sharp case. “This guy should have been on admin leave pending the investigation immediately, and fired for sufficient evidence … Is there no moral compass in this district?”
A key aspect of the impropriety debate is the matter of legality. While Winston and Sharp appear not to have violated statutory laws, they strayed from school policies, which they were obligated to follow as staff members. In the gray area between school and state rules, students can find themselves in difficult situations.
“Mr. Farrell [said] things to friends that I viewed with suspicion [and] I remember thinking, ‘That’s kind of an inappropriate comment to make,’” Paly alumna Elana Rebitzer said. “But I had friends who said, ‘Oh he likes me, I’m his favorite, it’s okay.’”
Some students, such as rising junior Peter King, retain their faith in Paly’s learning environment. However, others have not been able to dismiss the recent allegations of misconduct.
“I still feel safe, but I know that a few of my friends would feel unsafe spending time alone with a male teacher, and that’s really sad to hear. There’s a break of trust … a lot of people don’t feel safe.”
Peter King, Rising Junior
Younger students like rising sophomore Annie Tsui are having trouble coping with the recent cases.
“Everyone’s kind of just watching their back now,” Tsui said.
After four reported examples of impropriety, PAUSD administrators are still struggling with how to stop this problem altogether. According to administrators, cases of impropriety have been handled in largely the same way. PAUSD Superintendent Max McGee said that the District responded effectively and promptly to the reported improprieties by sending district-wide emails and initiating investigations.
“I think immediate enforcement and immediate response sends an important message to the community,” McGee said.
Looking to prevent issues, McGee brought in outside help to explain hypothetical situations and define actions that are considered sexual harassment.
“We actually had one of our attorneys come in [last fall] and conduct trainings for the leadership team,” McGee said. “We went through several different examples of what constitutes that sexual harassment — innuendos, double entendres, off-color jokes.”
McGee believes that the current training is effective, and has faith that PAUSD faculty understands professional standards regarding sexual harassment.
“It’s really a matter of professional ethics,” McGee said. “I think that by and large faculty and staff are fully informed and aware of what constitutes sexual harassment. Also, a message most of them learned long ago is that you do not meet with students alone behind closed doors, especially male teachers with female students.”
This “message” about the express do’s and don’ts at school was not delivered in writing, and no teachers were called out to be disciplined directly after the attorney came in. In a Verde interview dated Oct. 11, 2015 on Verde’swebsite, Farrell made comments about his high school years such as “I don’t think one girl ever looked at me” and “I never asked for a rubber again, at least [not] from a teacher” (in reference to an eraser, called a “rubber” in his native Scotland). These comments seem to violate the awareness of professional standards that McGee believes all teachers have.
When asked about what administration was doing to stop future improprieties, PAUSD Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey said that PAUSD officials were at a loss.
“That’s a great question,” Autrey said. “Everyone’s been racking their brains.”
Administrators are still grappling with the impropriety issues and have not yet laid out a concrete plan for preventing future cases.
“We have an obligation to students to make their paths more supportive and not difficult. How do we do that? It’s in our plans and goals, but it needs to be more clearly stated. It’s alarming and concerning.”
Markus Autrey, PAUSD Associate Superintendent
Bowers also expressed concern over, but offered no solutions for, the reported impropriety incidents:
“We’ll certainly have conversations about the [Farrell] incident and look at what steps might actually have an impact on this,” Bowers said. “Hopefully [impropriety is] not something that occurs very often; we’ll certainly have conversations about it.”
Ambiguous Board Policies
The teacher disciplinary decisions in PAUSD are made by the Board, which metes out punishments as it sees fit. All Paly staff and administrators follow the state Educational Codes as well as local Board policies regarding professional standards surrounding sexual propriety, detailed by the Board Policy 41.19.21 document. However, BP 41.19.21 is vague, particularly the clause that discourages teachers from “engaging in inappropriate socialization or fraternization with a student.” Neither state laws nor the District’s own policies define what constitutes “inappropriate socialization,” giving the District substantial leeway in interpreting this term.
“There’s great leeway in much of the [Educational] Codes on purpose, to protect students,” Autrey said.
Some argue that it is important to delineate the threshold at which teacher-student relations are inappropriate in order to protect students from teachers who have decided to use their power improperly.
“I do think personally that there is a line between teachers and students and that it gets crossed a lot at Paly,” King said. “[If teachers are] friends with students on Facebook, everytime you post a picture of anything in your life, your teachers see that, [creating] a level of connection you normally wouldn’t have.”
Following Sharp’s incident, the District hired two law firms, Lozano Smith and Fagen Friedman and Fulfrost (FFF) to investigate Sharp’s case. While the firms were supposed to evaluate different aspects of the case, the board policy’s nebulous language yielded contradicting results — Lozano Smith found Sharp guilty of violating school policies while FFF found his behavior untroubling and dismissed claims of impropriety as “rumors.”
Autrey says that the vagueness of the Code of Conduct allows the district to decide punishments on a case-by-case basis, which sometimes leads to inconsistent results.
“The law has ambiguities in it and is left open to interpretation and sometimes you’re going to get one side or another. We have to wrestle as a district with where we fall.”
Markus Autrey, PAUSD Associate Superintendent
Therefore, to actively combat impropriety, PAUSD Board Member Ken Dauber has proposed an “anti-grooming” policy to the Board, which would strengthen the District’s professional standards and provide specific rules for teachers to follow. Dauber hopes to pass the policy in August.
“I proposed that the District forbid relationships between teachers and former students for a period of time after graduation,” Dauber said. “That went into some objections from our lawyers, which I don’t think were necessarily well-founded, but I revised that proposal so that if teachers have relationships with students during a period of time after graduation, an investigation would [be] triggered.”
With policies lacking detail, there is the possibility that impropriety can fly under the radar or not be dealt with to the fullest extent.
Unenforced Hiring Process
Sources have led us to believe that both Airo, who was hired in 2008, and Farrell, who was hired in 2012, did not go through formal sit-down interview processes before receiving their teaching positions. Although interviews are mandatory for District jobs, McGee was unsure whether Airo was interviewed.
“I don’t know if he went through the full process,” McGee said. “I think our process is a good one, but I do want to make sure it was followed.”
An anonymous Paly student who was taught by Farrell this past school year said that he told the entire class one period that he had not been interviewed before becoming a teacher, saying that he instead transitioned directly from being an assistant teacher. The administrators interviewed for this article were unfamiliar with the particulars of both hires and cannot confirm or deny whether the mandatory interviews were conducted.
“The interview process is required in PAUSD,” Autrey said. “In reality, there needs to be a formal interview process.”
Tsui, after hearing about Airo’s and Farrell’s alleged lack of interviews, felt concerned.
“I’m surprised they didn’t go through a formal interview process; it’s something that should happen, and I think maybe if they did go through a formal process, these cases wouldn’t have happened,” Tsui said. “The fact that the two teachers didn’t go through formal interviews tells us a lot about PAUSD and their hiring process, and how [administration] could be hiring anyone without anybody noticing.”
Taking It Seriously
We need to make sure that when we receive complaints, we take them seriously, and use the right procedures,” Dauber said.
Paly has been under investigation by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for several years, ever since Verde’s “Rape Culture” article, but the recent incidents have reignited a discussion surrounding Paly’s climate.
“There’s an investigation by the OCR about Paly’s climate and a lot of Paly seniors [last year] said ‘Oh this is stupid, there’s nothing wrong with the climate. But I think [Mr. Farrell’s] situation makes it incredibly clear that Palo Alto has a problem when all of this [impropriety] happens at the same time.”
Elana Rebitzer, Paly Alumna
The OCR investigations have cost significant money and time, causing many community members and administrators to display a dismissive attitude towards the OCR.
“I think it would be great to get these [investigations] behind us,” McGee said.
When asked whether the recent cases of sexual impropriety were an issue of climate, Sergeant James Reifschneider from the PAPD said that the occurrence of multiple incidents in a short period of time could be classified as unfortunate coincidences.
“I don’t know at this time that anything that happened is attributable to the culture at Paly or anything specific to Palo Alto High School,” Reifschneider said.
In a mindset similar to McGee’s, Board members seek to conclude investigations quickly. Both Winston and Sharp were paid $150,000 in exchange for their resignations from PAUSD, in an effort to avoid the lengthy and expensive process that the dismissal procedure entails.
“When the district wants to separate from a teacher, there’s a process that the district can go through of dismissal,” Dauber said. “But that process is not always available, and it isn’t always cost-effective.”
However, in the Board’s agreement with Sharp, the two parties reached a “mutual general release” in which they would release one another from “any and all claims, expenses, debts, demands, costs, and other actions or liabilities of every nature, whether known or unknown.”
Since the District opted to pursue a settlement rather than a termination, Sharp was able to leave PAUSD with a clean personnel record.
“If a case is bad, we should not settle for a resignation,” rising senior Jenny Zhuge said. “We should settle for what the case deserves, regardless of money or time.”
Some believe that the District should consider the option of improving the current dismissal process. Expediting and ensuring timely availability of the procedure would prevent the District from having to resort to settlements and resignations to get rid of teachers that have violated school policies.
“If the degree of the case calls for something like a dismissal process, I do believe that the district should invest in the process so they could execute a dismissal process,” Zhuge said.
The District has had difficulty ensuring appropriate and effective investigations in response to claims of sexual impropriety, particularly in the Winston and Sharp cases. Dauber believes this should change.
“In the case of Principal Winston, as far as I know, there never was a Title IX [gender discrimination] investigation, which there should have been. In the case of Mr. Sharp, there should have been a Title IX investigation when the issue was first brought to the district in the fall of 2014. But the Title IX investigation didn’t begin until months after that and it was not conducted correctly. So I think that we still have some distance to go before we are where we need to be.”
Ken Dauber, PAUSD School Board Member
Many community members are rallying for a change in the District’s approach to handling impropriety cases. They argue that the issue of unhealthy climate must be taken more seriously — only then will the situation improve.
“I think that calling the three cases a big issue is an understatement,” King said. “The fact that three kids, students at our high schools and elementary schools, have felt violated in their school environment is really, really not okay.”
After analyzing the four cases through the perspectives of the community and administration, we would like to offer a few potential steps that could be taken to avoid future cases of impropriety. We urge PAUSD administration and community members to consider the four courses of action listed below.
Focus on prevention mechanisms rather than resources for alleviation. This includes improving trainings of sexual harassment identification by providing specific examples of violations by teachers and having advisory lessons for students and teachers alike covering the elements of impropriety.
Clarify violations of sexual impropriety in Board Policy 41.19.21 by creating a more detailed set of codes. The language in our district’s policies should not be intentionally vague — it should be explicit and comprehensive.
Make sure that the mandatory interview process is being executed for all teachers in question of being hired, regardless of prior status or employment.
Acknowledge and increase awareness of PAUSD’s issues with impropriety. Trying to let issues continue with minimal publicity will only encourage more dangerous future situations.
It is up to the community to engender change. Whether there is trouble with an inefficiency in investigations, a lack of preventive measures, an imperfect code of conduct or the community’s general perception towards such cases, the onus is on us to collaborate and find solutions to impropriety.
“It’s really about how do we as a community work to restore the trust and goodness that’s all around and not let these negative and unprofessional acts become a cornerstone of who we are,” Autrey said.
*In the process of writing this article, we reached out to as many sources we as we could. The following individuals declined to be interviewed or did not respond to our interview requests: Ronnie Farrell, Kim Diorio, Kevin Skelly, all Paly staff members listed in the Paly Directory, PTSA organizations for all schools in PAUSD (except Walter Hays Elementary School, Addison Elementary School and Henry M. Gunn High School), Camille Townsend, Heidi Emberling, Melissa Baten Caswell, Monica Sanchez Lopez, Nicki Smith, Barbara Harris, Katherine Baker and Christopher Kolar.
**Special thanks to the following staff members of The Campanile for contributing to this article: Edward Kim, Ashley Zhang, Kiran Misner, Samuel Yun, Alice Zhao, David Tayeri, Miranda Chen, Lauren Klass, Aiva Petriceks and Esther Wojcicki