The recent revelation that a Palo Alto High School junior had been convicted of sexual misconduct seems to have split the community into conflicting sides and prompted even some of the most reticent residents to voice their concerns.
A KTVU FOX 2 News video was the first report about the sexual assault allegations to reach the public on May 10, and consisted of a montage of the Paly campus and video statements from female students of the sexual incidents, which occurred in a church, a Paly bathroom and allegedly in a house party.
KTVU initially inaccurately reported that the student was involved in three incidents for which he was convicted of two counts of sexual assault. Since then, The Campanile has uncovered more accurate information that clarifies the situation: The student had been convicted in juvenile court of “oral copulation by force, violence, duress, menace or fear” for the incident at the church, and of consensual sex with a minor, not sexual assault, for the incident on Paly’s campus.
Because the student did not commit or attempt sexual assault or sexual battery “at any time while on school grounds, going to or coming from school, during lunch, whether on or off campus and during or while going to or coming from a school sponsored activity,” according to Education Code 48900, he was not eligible for suspension or expulsion from Paly. Additionally, because the suspect is a minor, the names and identities of him and his family are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
Since the news of a student being convicted of sexual assault became public, the accused student, a member of the Paly football and baseball teams, is no longer participating in Paly sports and has chosen to finish his education outside of Paly.
Despite inaccuracies in the initial KTVU report, its impact on the community was immediate and continues to raise questions and concerns. The Campanile explores the mosaic of perspectives present in our community at this tumultuous time and what changes these events may bring in the future.
Understanding the Laws Behind the Case
As the news about the sexual misconduct came out, many parents were outraged. Facebook posts about the incident were cluttered with comments, pondering, “Why is a serial rapist allowed to go to school?” and “Is my kid safe at school anymore?” In response, the District and the school administration cited FERPA as the reason that the student was allowed to continue attending Paly.
FERPA was a law set in place in the 1970s to keep student records — medical reports, academic transcripts and other educational records — protected. Essentially, the law keeps a student perpetrator’s name and identity undisclosed in order to assure that the student can continue to attend school safely. However, according to the government website about FERPA, law enforcement records, such as juvenile crime records, are not given the same privacy protections as FERPA. According to Diorio, there is a process within the law that allows the student to pursue their education off campus in order to allow the learning environment at schools to stay productive.
“We would look at that individual is entitled to an education,” Paly Principal Kim Diorio said. “We have compulsory attendance laws around education. We have to make a determination whether they’re safe to remain on campus whether it’s impacting the learning environment. If the answer is ‘yes they are affecting the learning environment’ we have to look at alternate options. It could be anything for a transfer to another school in the district, it could be looking at a continuation of high school, an independent study program, or it could be a non public school course of study offering.
Additionally, Title IX, a second law that deals with sexual assault and equal protection for men and women, further complicates the current Paly situation. According to Title IX, the school must also have an independent investigation that runs alongside the investigations by the police after the case to investigate if any sexual harassment occured . Since the sexual misconduct case became public, Paly has hired the Cozen O’Connor International Law Firm, a firm considered to be at the forefront of sexual assault and domestic violence issues. The firm is best known for its work in the Baylor football rape cases and the 1996 Archdioceses of Philadelphia case about the rape of a 14-year-old.
“We would look at that individual is entitled to an education. We have compulsory attendance laws around education. We have to make a determination whether they’re safe to remain on campus whether it’s impacting the learning environment. If the answer is ‘yes they are affecting the learning environment’ we have to look at alternate options.”
Kim Diorio, Principal
In this case, a restraining order was obtained by the Paly bathroom victim. However, the juvenile court cannot force a student to be removed or expelled, so Paly administrators took action to switch classes in order to ensure that their paths would not cross. Diorio emphasized that the student’s removal was not an option that could be taken in this situation due to Education Code 48900.
“We looked at the list of offenses that a student could be expelled for and they were not applicable for this situation,” Diorio said. “We did take appropriate disciplinary action for what happened.”
PAUSD’s Operation of Readjustment and Reformation
Reacting to community outrage over these incidents of sexual misconduct, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) decided to hire an outside law firm, Cozen O’Connor, at a closed session meeting on May 16 to investigate the District staff’s handling of the allegations and to reexamine its sexual harassment policies.
Additionally, the District is required to update its sexual harassment policy by the District’s resolution agreement with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), approved by the Board in March, which resolved the OCR’s outstanding Title IX investigations into the District. The Board Policy Review Committee (BPRC), a committee organized by the District to examine and update Board policies, has been working to make said policies align with the OCR’s guidelines for making the District align with Title IX. The recent incidents of sexual misconduct have framed and drawn more attention to the process of updating the sexual harassment policy.
“What we have here is a fairly thorough revision of our policies to, I think it’s fair to say, loosen them up rather than tighten them up. I don’t understand how we got to this point and I don’t think it’s the appropriate direction to go.”
Ken Dauber, PAUSD Board Member
One policy that is being updated is the District’s sexual harassment policy, BP5145.7. At the School Board meeting on May 23, Board member Ken Dauber raised concerns about one of the proposed changes to the policy that would route some reports of sexual misconduct not deemed to involve sexual violence or an egregious pattern of sexual harassment through the school site rather than the District office. Dauber believes that this proposed amendment to BP5145.7 violates the purpose of revising the Board’s sexual harassment policy.
“What we have here is a fairly thorough revision of our policies to, I think it’s fair to say, loosen them up rather than tighten them up,” Dauber said. “I don’t understand how we got to this point and I don’t think it’s the appropriate direction to go.”
“If I heard it directly from someone I know that something happened to them, but they made me promise not to tell anyone, is that something I report online? It’s really nuanced and complicated. If students aren’t educated right on it, we will either have way too many complaints coming in or not very many.”
David Tayeri, Former Student PAUSD Board Representative
The District is also taking action to deal with sexual misconduct by creating a web page for reporting sexual harassment or discrimination, as mandated by the OCR resolution agreement. The importance of making this system run smoothly was highlighted by the most recent incident. At their meeting on May 26, the Board discussed how it could make the process of reporting sexual assault better.
“If I hear from someone else apparently some girl got sexually assaulted at a party and it’s a third-hand rumor, is that something I’m going to report online?” said Paly Student Board Representative David Tayeri. “If I heard it directly from someone I know that something happened to them, but they made me promise not to tell anyone, is that something I report online? It’s really nuanced and complicated. If students aren’t educated right on it, we will either have way too many complaints coming in or not very many.”
Stepping Stone to a New Form of Justice
“I think there has been a lot of misinformation reported,” said Paly Principal Kim Diorio. “It’s concerning to me because it feels like libel and slander, especially when I’m receiving harassing emails and threatening messages about information that is not true.”
The lack of communication between the administration and the community has partially fueled the public outrage against Diorio, who cites the legal restrictions of the case as the reason for her limited discussion of the case.
“My hands are tied in some ways because everything that I communicate out is being vetted through attorneys and making sure that is appropriate and aligned with our district policies,” Diorio said. “We are being really careful to be supportive of all students involved in these allegations.”
The accused student continued to attend Paly despite the severity of the allegations, provoking anger and shock among the community, when it became public after the fact. However, allowing the Paly student to remain on campus is an important example of Paly’s new-era approach to discipline, which focuses on restorative justice.
“My hands are tied in some ways because everything that I communicate out is being vetted through attorneys and making sure that is appropriate and aligned with our district policies. We are being really careful to be supportive of all students involved in these allegations.”
Kim Diorio, Principal
“Back when Jacquie McEvoy was principal [there were a] lot of rules and a lot of punishments and consequences for breaking rules. It was very much like [if] you did this wrong you’re getting suspended,” Diorio said. “The law has changed and [the Education] Code has changed and nationally there has been a lot of conversation about not jumping to suspension on the first offense and taking a more progressive discipline.”
By implementing restorative justice-based disciplinary action, Paly administrators are making education the priority because suspension as a punishment leads students to miss important class lectures, class work and discussions. Students should understand that there are consequences to their actions, but not fear them.
“I think that one of the philosophies we’ve really embraced [now] is the idea of restorative justice and progressive discipline,” Diorio said.
The punishments students can expect are aimed at fostering communication and allowing them second chances rather than admonition.
“The law has changed and [the Education] Code has changed and nationally there has been a lot of conversation about not jumping to suspension on the first offense and taking a more progressive discipline.”
Kim Diorio, Principal
“[We] really want to give students the benefit of the doubt and give students the chance to learn from their mistakes,” Diorio said. “The first offense might be community service, and the second offense might be a detention or Saturday school, and your third offense might be suspension.”
The Rationalization of Unheard Opinions
Misinformation from media outlets has led to harsh appraisal from the community and finger-pointing at the school, the District and people involved with the accused student. With minimal news coverage and knowledge about the consequences given to the suspect because of protection from privacy laws, anger and frustration has spread among students and parents, who are questioning the priorities of school administrators. Many believed that the student presented a clear danger at school and should have been barred from campus immediately after his conviction.
Students have been quick to judge the friends of the suspect and their decisions to remain acquainted with him. However, many of those who were close to the suspect have different stories to tell. For example, Maria, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, said she has received menacing messages from students and has been subjected to severe bullying on social media, driving Maria to stop attending school for one week.
“I personally think that it is not right for other people to tell me that they can’t respect me if I can’t admit that he is a terrible person, because you are seeing things from your perspective,” Maria said. “But I know that I’ve been with him for a while now to actually see a lot of good qualities in him.”
The situation is not as simple as picking sides between the victim and the accused. With emotions, feelings, history and other factors, the narrative must be considered along a spectrum rather than a polarized perspective.
Close friends of the suspect have known about the first conviction since December 2015, long before the news was released publicly. Many community members grapple with understanding how someone could still “stand with him” after what has been portrayed in recent news reports. However, in the eyes of those who know him well, the student is someone who made a mistake two years ago and has been actively trying to become a better person.
“I was obviously upset, mad [and] confused, but as of right now, I’ve had a lot more time to process everything and definitely seen a lot of growth and change and progress in him,” Maria said. “But I feel like for everyone else, because this is up in the air and still all new information for them… obviously people are going to be reacting, like how I probably reacted when I first found out about this.”
Maria said it would be illogical for her to abandon him in light of recent media attention, when she has chosen to stay with him for all the time that she has known about the incident.
“Many people think that by being with [him], I’ve been blinded or that I’m in denial,” Maria said. “I get that I am going to see things in a different perspective than other people, but I’m not denying anything and I’m not trying to cover up any of his actions.”
Meanwhile, the accused and his family have received anonymous threats and several forms of hate attacks. Due to these threats, the suspect has voluntarily removed himself from the baseball team and from Paly campus in order to protect his safety. Especially at this point in his life, Maria believes that it is critical to support him and his family.
“Many people think that by being with [him], I’ve been blinded or that I’m in denial. I get that I am going to see things in a different perspective than other people, but I’m not denying anything and I’m not trying to cover up any of his actions.”
“I am really happy that his close friends and I are still being there for him, because if every single person just left him, how is that going to help him become a better person?” Maria said. “If anything, he is going to lose hope… he is going to want to give up. He doesn’t have bad intentions and I wouldn’t have believed that if I had cut him off.”
As part of his court-ordered punishment, the student has attended sexual offender counseling and has been voluntarily attending therapy sessions on a weekly basis for five months now. During an interview, Maria made a poignant statement about the possibilities of rehabilitation when she referenced the quote, “If people refuse to look at you in a new light and they can only see you for what you were, only see you for the mistakes you’ve made, if they don’t realize that you are not your mistakes, then they have to go.”
“People like this need help, not just to be put in jail, but they need to get therapy and definitely need to talk to people. I think it’s something going on in their brain that makes them think it’s okay to do.”
Thomas, Student and Friend
This concept raises many questions: Is Paly an unforgiving community that refuses to see a convicted student in a new light? Amid the current mayhem, what can be done to relieve the animosity toward him and also combat sexual misconduct in the future?
Rape and consent is a nationwide discussion and great efforts have been made by the media, schools and advocacy groups to raise awareness and educate the public, especially students, about sexual assault prevention. However, these types of acts remain pervasive both on and off campus. Rape culture is an epidemic that seems simple to solve, yet is complex and difficult to pinpoint. The endless efforts have shown some correlation, but no cause to, rape prevention. This leads to the belief that rape stems from something deeper than just a lack of knowledge about consent.
“I am really happy that his close friends and I are still being there for him, because if every single person just left him, how is that going to help him become a better person?If anything, he is going to lose hope… he is going to want to give up. He doesn’t have bad intentions and I wouldn’t have believed that if I had cut him off.”
“People like this need help, not just to be put in jail, but they need to get therapy and definitely need to talk to people,” said Thomas, a Paly student whose name has been changed to protect his identity. “I think it’s something going on in their brain that makes them think it’s okay to do.”
A Common Goal: Convergence of Perspectives for Better
Moving past the tumultuous week of May 8, Paly administrators are breaking the ceiling of community criticism and outrage and focusing on instilling proactive change in the future.
Proposals include requiring freshmen to take Living Skills during the school year and introducing educational seminars on both sexual education and sexual assault awareness to the curriculum.
“Having conversations about the future of Living Skills is definitely something we need to think about as a community,” Diorio said. “I think we need to bring in some parent education and some experts who can talk to parents about raising daughters and boys in this society.”
Additionally, on May 25, the Wellness Center and YWCA Sexual Assault Services hosted an event in the English Writing Center (EWC) in the Paly library. The goal was to initiate discussions between Paly students and staff members about “how to create a safer school climate and better address issues of sexual harassment and assault through education, awareness building and prevention efforts on our campus,” according to an invitational message posted on Schoology by Wellness Center Coordinator Jonathan Frecceri.
“Having conversations about the future of Living Skills is definitely something we need to think about as a community. I think we need to bring in some parent education and some experts who can talk to parents about raising daughters and boys in this society.”
Kim Diorio, Principal
Days after the KTVU report, Paly students and administrators were seen wearing bracelets with the message “I Stand with Victims of Sexual Assault” written across them. Junior Darrow Hornik initially started the effort to foster a safer environment for sexual assault victims and to spread awareness. Hornik bought 2,600 teal bracelets, which display the color of National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, with her own money, but also set up a GoFundMe.com campaign to fundraise for the costs.
“Being terrified by the fact that we’ve been walking around with a possible sexual predator on campus sparked this idea of creating these wristbands,” Hornik said. “[It’s] a lttle way to show my solidarity with the victims of sexual assault and allow the Paly community to support victims of sexual assault. It is a small way for people who feel voiceless to have a voice in this hard time.”
“I think the overarching goal is to unify our school community because right now there is a lot of divide between students, admin, female students and male students. I know it’s a small gesture to wear these wristbands, but I think something as small as that could help students [understand] that we are here for each other and that we are safe at this school and in this community and that everything will be okay.”
Darrow Hornik, Rising Senior
Both Paly administrators and students have been working towards mending a divided community and to remove feelings of anger, fear and mistrust.
“I think the overarching goal is to unify our school community because right now there is a lot of divide between students, admin, female students and male students,” Hornik said. “I know it’s a small gesture to wear these wristbands, but I think something as small as that could help students [understand] that we are here for each other and that we are safe at this school and in this community and that everything will be okay.”
Visit RAINN.org to learn more about sexual assault awareness and prevention.
National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673
Bay Area Women Against Rape Hotline: 510-845-7273
**Special thanks to the following staff members of The Campanile for contributing to this article: Noah Baum, Allison Wu, Ashley Zhang, Ehecatl Rivera, Niklas Risano and Maya Homan