Title IX protocols consistent amidst local, national discussion


As ongoing sexual harassment allegations in the Gunn Robotics Team (GRT) were brought to court last month, the spotlight is being refocused onto the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Title IX procedural requirements. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposals to grant more rights to the accused and shift the nature of Title IX regulations has also kept the law and its future on the national radar.

Title IX was first passed in 1972 as a response to complaints against the lack of athletic scholarships, championships and funding for women’s teams in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Title IX originally aimed to eliminate gender-based discrimination in athletics, but has since evolved into a law that encompasses “any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Since 1972, the scope of Title IX has also expanded to cover not only gender discrimination in athletics, but sexual harassment as well as gender-based discrimination against transgender students (primarily under the Obama administration).

In 2016, a court case that charged a Palo Alto High School student for the assault of two female freshmen sparked controversy within the district and the community, as many felt as though the case was not handled according to the principles of Title IX. Upon receiving reports of this, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)–a sub-agency of the Department of Education–confirmed that the case had not been handled in accordance with Title IX and subsequently began to work closely with PAUSD’s Board Policy Review Committee, staff members and a lawyer specializing in Title IX to improve the district’s approach to Title IX cases. The result of this collaboration was a revised board policy regarding the scope and definition of sexual assault, along with a new uniform complaint procedure for students and employees to report Title IX violations. Because the new board policy was created in conjunction with the OCR, it was written to closely reflect the standards placed by Title IX and was confirmed by the OCR to be legally sound. “After it was written, we forwarded it to OCR and they looked over and said, ‘Yes, we approve of this. This is exactly the policy you should be having,’” School Board President Jennifer DiBrienza said.

Since this revision, there have been several local and national incidents that have prompted many to question the future of PAUSD’s Title IX policies. Most recently, on Jan. 24, a petition was filed with the Santa Clara County Superior Court alleging that PAUSD had mishandled her sexual harassment case, which began as a Uniform Title IX complaint. The petition requested the reinstatement of a previous directive issued by PAUSD in November 2018 and limited student’s interactions with another student who was found to have sexually harassed her. On Jan. 18, the restrictions placed by this directive were loosened by the district. The petition stated that this decision “unconstitutionally deprives [the victim] of her right to equal access to education,” and that PAUSD “is essentially asking (the girl) to make an impossible choice — to choose either her safety or her access to education.” On Feb. 24, a district attorney filed a response with the court, alleging that the decision was made to balance and protect the rights of both the boy and the girl. His mother had disclosed in December 2018 that his “emotional health and well-being would be seriously impacted by his continued exclusion” from GRT.

On the national level, Betsy DeVos’ new clarifications and guidelines regarding Title IX are expected to alter schools’ approaches to the law. Her outline generally aims to clarify the laws that protect the rights of the accused (such as requiring a higher burden of proof before a required response or permitting student advisors to cross-examine the accuser) and specify when exactly schools are required to respond to sexual harassment claims. For example, schools are now only required to respond to “conduct within its education program or activity,” potentially eliminating online of off-campus offenses.

While the scope of Title IX is currently being argued, the district does not plan on reeling back any of their legal protections offered to students. The strength and efficacy of the current policies have eliminated any need for revision in response to DeVos’ new guidance. “Our policy hasn’t changed and state law hasn’t changed; state Ed Code hasn’t changed. Even though there is less that we have to do according to Title IX, we’re still following our own policy, which is just as strong as it was before she rolled back those protections,” DiBrienza said. “In fact, if we did revisit our policy, we’d have to get it approved by OCR because they approved our policy as is now.” Similarly, Superintendent Don Austin reinforced that the district had no intentions of compromising their standards. “I think federal regulations set a floor and not a ceiling. So, in the case of regulations and protections for students, we’ll see those as minimums,” Austin said. “Our expectation here in Palo Alto is going to be that we’re going to protect every student to the nth degree and we’re going to exceed those minimum standards.”

The district is, however, constantly working to improve the accuracy of its Title IX investigations and improving the process overall, from complaint to resolution. “Sometimes a Title IX case will touch other aspects of one or more of the students involved. And I think here at the district level, we need to be more thoughtful about who else we involve in the conversation and make sure that we really understand the players, that we really understand where the complaint is coming from, what the respondent has to say and everyone involved in between,” said Austin. “Part of our job is to coordinate all those people in a way that we reach the best possible resolution and have the best possible outcome for everyone involved.”

Regardless of how PAUSD’s specific Title IX protocols may or may not change, though, DiBrienza still believes sexual harassment, in general, will remain a critical, widespread concern. “I don’t know that we’re ever going to get successful in completely eliminating every instance of sexual harassment ever,” DiBrienza said. “I’d like us to get better at it. That’s what the [Responsive Inclusive Safe Environment (RISE)] task force is working on.”

PAUSD’s current sexual harassment education includes high schools’ Safe and Welcoming Schools Days and assemblies led by activists and speakers such as Anea Bogue and Jackson Katz. In the years to come, PAUSD plans to normalize these conversations at a younger age. “I know that the RISE Task Force is thinking about really expanding down into the middle schools because that’s where you really start to have these relationships and get into more complexity than just friendships,” DiBrienza said. “I think it’s not that unusual when you have thousands of students together that incidents are going to happen sometimes. We’re trying to really work on those sort of cultural norms.”