Palo Alto Weekly uncovers sexual harassment allegations against former principal

Winston scrutinized after public records request

Following a month-long investigation, the Palo Alto Weekly published an article on April 11 detailing the allegations made against former Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston.

On June 6, 2013, an unnamed Paly staff member met with Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Associate Superintendent Dr. Charles Young to address certain actions of Winston that had made them, colleagues and other students feel uncomfortable.

“The information that I have known and been made aware of has caused me many sleepless nights, yet as I explained, I feared retaliation from… Phil Winston,” the staff member said in a memo. “I bring this information forward as my duty to report and in hope that the district will conduct their own fair investigation on this matter.”

The memo outlined various incidents of alleged sexual harassment involving both students and staff members, including a list of approximately 30 staff members who had spoken to the aforementioned complainant regarding “Mr. Winston’s inappropriate behavior and general concerns regarding his competence.” In addition, Winston was described as having been “flirtatious”  and  “causing great discomfort” and “hug[ging], rub[bing someone’s] back, putting his arms around [someone] and mak[ing] comments that were inappropriate.”

In addition, the staff member said that, “Principal Winston has sent the message to the students that there are clearly little or no consequences [to streaking].”

“Does it raise to the level of inappropriate professional behavior? Absolutely,” economics teacher and teacher on special assignment Eric Bloom said of the allegations. “But that’s not the biggest deal. The biggest deal was what was allegedly going on with him and some of the staff, and that wasn’t sexual, it was just bossiness.”

According to files obtained by the Weekly through a California Public Records Act request in January, Bowers notified Winston on June 12, 2013, of six specific allegations against him.

One of the allegations detailed Winston telling a female student: “You know how to get your boyfriend to do what you want? You need to sit on him, whip him and wrap your legs around his head.” Another implicated him as having asked another student: “Did your friend’s boobs hurt when [she] was running through the Quad at lunch?”

The following day, June 13, Winston gave two-weeks notice of his resignation to PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly. When asked if he expected Winston to resign the day following his notice of the allegations, Skelly told The Campanile, “I don’t want to go there,” but that “these are hard issues for people to deal with when you deal with imperfect people.”

“I know he had a rough year. I know he’d been thinking about stepping down,” Diorio said about Winston’s resignation.

The day after he announced his plans to retire to Skelly — which was not made public to the Paly community until June 17 — Winston replied to Bowers’ list of allegations, taking responsibility for some, but maintaining that most were taken out of context or that he did not use many of the phrases that he was accused of saying.

On August 13, 2013, Winston was given notice of unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance and was given six clear directives that he was told to follow, including “refraining from using profanity, sexual comments and innuendo, and derogatory terms; commenting on the physical attributes and the dress of students or colleagues; having any physical contact with students or staff; and engaging in actions and language that are flirtatious or sexual in nature.” In addition, Winston was instructed to complete sexual harassment prevention training within 90 days — the third time in his PAUSD career that he had been directed to participate in a harassment training

“We determined that the most appropriate course was to provide the employee with a corrective action plan — providing notice of unsatisfactory performance, clear guidance on expected conduct, clear consequences if our expectations are not met and clear provisions for assistance,” Skelly said in a statement sent to the Weekly. “Personnel matters of this nature are always sensitive involving the rights of the employee, the rights of the staff and students and the public’s right to information, all of which requires a careful balancing. We believe that in this instance all those rights were considered and protected.”

Many students, parents and community members were taken aback by the allegations. More specifically, many wondered why the allegations had not surfaced until 10 months after the anonymous staff member made the initial allegations. Skelly told The Campanile that, in June, the district had no intentions of publishing the disciplinary records of Winston. Diorio says that because of teacher contracts and privacy rights, such employee files cannot simply be made public.

“Because it’s a personnel issue, it’s not something that we can publicly discuss or bring to someone’s attention,” Principal Kim Diorio said. “Anytime a teacher or staff member gets reprimanded, we don’t broadcast that out to the entire community. We’re not able to share that.”

Diorio added, however, that she received no personal emails from parents or community members concerning the allegations against Winston on the day the Weekly article was released.

“We followed the law,” Skelly said. “We did what the law requires and the best practice of how to respond to these things. As soon as we found out about them, we took action.”

Winston is currently teaching in a special education classroom at David Starr Jordan Middle School and Skelly said he is “being well-supervised and he’s being successful. He’s working well with students and there have been no issues or complaints or anything like that since.

“We would never put students in harm’s way by having a staff member who we knew had engaged in behavior that was unacceptable and that we thought would have continued.”