In response to controversy surrounding the way sexual assault allegations from Paly students have been handled, the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) is creating new procedures for these cases.
During the past couple years, the Palo Alto community has heard of multiple sexual harassment situations, dating back to 2013, that happened at public spaces, such as parks and schools like Paly and Stanford University.
The District has been working with the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to produce some new rules to follow.
Megan Farrell, the new Title IX Compliance Officer of PAUSD, who came in as part of the new rules, stresses the importance of handling such cases.
“If something wrongful happens, it can have [long] effects for the rest of their life.”
Title IX Compliance Officer Megan Farrell
In March 2017, the United States Department of Education OCR sent a letter to PAUSD, specifically then Supt. Dr. Glenn “Max” McGee, about the administration’s response to multiple mishandled sexual assault allegations.
The allegations that have surfaced since 2013 are mostly student-student type allegations, occurring both on campus and off. However, some of the allegations have been between teachers and students.
The letter, signed by the regional director of the office, Laura Faer, stated, “On June 3, 2013, OCR opened the Directed Investigation based on information received that the District has not provided a prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault at Palo Alto High School.”
Upon receiving this letter, PAUSD and the U.S. Department of Education OCR worked to come up with agreements on handling sexual harassment allegations. They reached a resolution agreement, stating specifically which Board Policies the District will revise.
Farrell was hired as the agreement was coming together in November 2017. As the Title IX Compliance Officer, Farrell said her job entails handling any issues involving discrimination, bullying, harassment or intimidation brought to her attention by students.
The Palo Alto Police Department (PAPD) has a been involved, creating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) as of this past April. The purpose of this, as stated in the MOU is “to clarify its working relationship with the PAPD to ensure an effective, prompt, coordinated, and fair response to sexual misconduct.”
The District and PAPD recognize that due to the law they have different obligations and “it is important to respect those differences,” according to the MOU.
Additionally, both parties will conduct separate investigations and will not discourage the complainant from pursuing the other investigation as well.
The MOU also says that there will be School Resource Officers (SRO) available during school hours as well as proactively policing on school campuses.
Should a student be needing transportation to a medical facility for being a posed threat to others, officers will be using mechanical restraints as required by PAPD policy.
As for the PAPD having to search for students on school grounds, the MOU states that all pat downs and searches happening on school campus should be conducted away from the view of other students to protect the student from discrimination.
Another part of the resolution agreement said, “The District will develop an online system where students and parents can make anonymous reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence.”
This has already been put in place and can be found on the PAUSD website.
According to Farrell, the online system is more formal and accessible for students than the previous option for filing a Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) was.
Michelle Higgins, a parent representative on the Responsive Inclusive Safe Environment Taskforce (RISE) whose goal is on compliance and sexual harassment prevention and education, “[the] . . . increased reporting of sexual harassment is, counterintuitively a positive, as it indicates that our students, educators and parents have become far more aware and responsive to sexual harassment.”
However, many people who have filed a complaint would say that the new process isn’t what they were looking for.
“One of the hardest things [about my job] is at the end of the day a lot of the people don’t feel happy with the conclusion,” Farrell said. “Both sides are generally looking for complete vindication. But, our investigation results in a finding of a policy violation or no policy violation. We are not required to conclude which side is right, which is wrong.”
A new aspect that is part of the agreement is that the district must hold mandatory staff trainings that revolve around Title IX.
These trainings have already started and are required for elementary, middle and high school staff in the district.
The idea of the trainings is to educate the staff so that everyone is on the same page with the new agreements.
There are separate training sessions for bus drivers and leadership staff, those who are in the District but not a specific school.
In addition, the OCR will also be reviewing all reports of Title IX violations in the district that were reported in PAUSD high schools from the 2012-13 through the 2015-16 school year to ensure proper solution and closure of each case.
Towards the end of the document it is stated in yellow highlight, “OCR will monitor this resolution agreement for a minimum of three years.”
Farrell hopes that these new procedures will help make victims feel more at peace with the end result, create a greater sense of understanding and make school a safe place for all.
“I would like to see more informal resolutions this year, I’d like to see a solution where both parties are involved and come to an agreement.”
Parallel to the new policies being created within PAUSD, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made some announcements regarding sexual harassment in schools on a federal level.
According to The New York Times, DeVos wants to give more assistance and rights to those accused of sexual misconduct.
DeVos also wants to create new rules about the liability of the school, saying they should only have to be involved if the harassment occurred on-campus.
Should these proposals be made final, schools such as Paly would not become involved or have the ability to help students who were sexually harassed off campus.