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Betsy DeVosK-12

Palo Alto school district mishandled sexual harassment complaints, federal investigation finds

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos (Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Palo Alto school officials have not done enough to protect students and faculty who said they were sexually harassed and assaulted, according to a U.S. Department of Education investigation

The department's Office for Civil Rights investigates cases in which schools are accused of violating federals laws such as Title IX, which outlaws sex-based discrimination in schools.

After promising to make changes, Palo Alto Unified School District will keep its federal funding under terms of a resolution agreement with the department. 

This is the first such agreement that the Department of Education has publicized since Donald Trump became president. Many civil rights advocates fear that the office will be less active now under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

The Palo Alto investigation began in 2013, under the Obama administration.

Under the agreement, Palo Alto Unified must update its training, policies and website to make it easier for victims to file complaints; commit to "address any complaint of sexual harassment"; and report the number of sexual harassment and assault violations that occur each year to the federal government. 

According to the Education Department, the district did not adequately investigate about 25 reports in 2013 from faculty who said a Palo Alto High School principal had made sexual comments and advances toward students and staff over the course of three years. As part of the agreement, the district now will investigate those reports.

In June 2016, a teacher at the school was arrested after he asked a ninth-grade student to come to his classroom, "put his hands under the student's clothes and touched her breasts" and then "took one of her hands and placed it on his clothed groin area," according to the investigation. The district quickly put the teacher on unpaid leave, but didn't initiate a Title IX investigation until October. The teacher pleaded no-contest to sexual battery in January.

At Henry M. Gunn High School, investigators found, officials failed to implement an adequate campus safety plan for a student after another student stalked and assaulted her on the way home. The victim complained to the Education Department in 2014.

"The safety of all PAUSD students is of high priority for the school district as it understands that a child needs to feel safe at school in order to learn and thrive," district spokesman Jorge Quintana said in an email.

"PAUSD will continue its collaborative partnership with the Office of Civil Rights as it reviews the school district’s response at the time of the allegations, its processes, its Board of Education policies, and future systems and programs to protect all students.”

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