Board to hire law firm to probe staff handling of sexual assault allegations

    PAUSD Supt. Max McGee and Board of Education trustees listen to community members Tuesday night at the District Office’s Aspen Room. During the closed-door session that followed the forum, the board took no disciplinary actions against any district staff. “No decisions were made,” McGee said. “I think it was really important to listen to those stories and testimony.” Photo: Donnesh Farmanfarmaian.

    Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include the latest information about the board meeting.

    In a closed-door meeting late today, the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education announced it would hire an outside law firm to investigate district staff’s handling of sexual assault allegations involving a Palo Alto High School student.

    According to board member Terry Godfrey, the firm — Cozen O’Connor — will “provide a report to the board to assist in further evaluation of the superintendent, his performance and to aid the district in addressing any Title IX or other issues.” Later, Godfrey indicated the review would also include the actions of other district staff.

    Cozen O’Connor is the same firm the district is working with for the Office for Civil Rights Resolution Agreement.

    Godfrey, who said the board took no disciplinary action against district staff tonight, added that the investigation will start “as soon as we can.”

    The lawyer representing the student in question issued a statement earlier Tuesday, which included that “the student has elected not to complete the school year on campus.”

    The forum portion of the event, which lasted until the board began its closed-door session, was dominated by parents’ and community members’ vexation at the district’s seeming inaction in response to several reported encounters between the male student and female students. Many voiced scathing frustration with the limited communication offered by the district.

    In one instance, at the entrance to the room where the forum took place, Supt. Max McGee shook hands with an attendee, who ignored McGee and eventually said, “Let go of my hand.”

    Speakers, on multiple occasions, cited Principal Kim Diorio’s statement yesterday on InFocus, the school’s broadcast journalism show, regarding the fact that “the student in question was neither arrested nor convicted of sexual assault or sexual harassment on school grounds,” saying that this, among other things, was an attempt by the administration to draw attention away from the lack of information.

    “The amount of times FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) has been evoked during this is just mind-boggling,” Rayme Waters, a Paly parent, said during the open session.

    Taly Katz, a parent of two Paly students, said she wants school and district leadership to prioritize building trust with community members.

    “I think they need to do a lot of fact checking, and I think they need to start working on the trust with the community and the students,” Katz said. “Because there is no trust right now.”

    “I’d like to see some accountability, specifically with the Paly administration,” Katz added.

    Other community members offered similar comments about the district’s struggle with trust.

    “My overreaching concern is that the lack of trust in the current Paly administration has created an environment where student voice has been de facto silenced,” one parent said.