Q&A: The Oracle interviews the Title IX Club and PAUSD Title IX Coordinator Kelly Gallagher

The Gunn Oracle conducted Q&A sessions with both the Gunn Title IX Club and Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Title IX Coordinator Kelly Gallagher. The following transcripts have been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity. 

This section of the Q&A was conducted via email with PAUSD Title IX Coordinator Kelly Gallagher.

The Oracle: What is Title IX?

Kelly Gallagher: Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a law that affects any educational program that receives federal funding. The language of the law provides that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

Much of the conversation about Title IX is focused on how educational organizations respond to allegations of sexual harassment and sexual violence, but as you can see it is much more than this and is meant to address disparate equity or access in any education program or activity. This can include athletics, leadership, financial aid, admissions and more.

Part of the reason the aspects of the law influencing response to sexual harassment and sexual violence are receiving attention in recent years is because of the federal government’s attention to these areas. The Department of Education under the Obama administration issued guidance documents to direct educational organizations about the expected interpretation of the law. Then, under the Trump administration, the Department of Education wrote regulations (often referred to as The Final Rule under Title IX), which are considered law, specifying how educational organizations must respond to allegations of sexual harassment, including acts of sexual violence.

In addition to Title IX, many states, including California, have also adopted laws that address how educational organizations respond to reports of sexual harassment, including acts of sexual violence.

TO: How does one report a Title IX complaint? 

KG: There are a few ways someone can report information [regarding] a Title IX related complaint. All of these are listed on the PAUSD Title IX website and include the following:

TO: What are the steps you take when investigating a Title IX complaint? 

KG: I provided a summary of the response and protocol below. The full policy and procedure can be found in the District’s Policies. 

Anytime someone reports an incident of sexual harassment or sexual violence to an employee, that information is shared with the Title IX Coordinator. There are reports that may also require a notice to law enforcement. The person who experienced sexual harassment or sexual violence is offered safety and supportive measures and the option to file a formal complaint through the Uniform Complaint Procedures (UCP). If the person chooses to file a UCP, then we schedule a time to discuss resolution options available, including the option to participate in an investigation.

Each investigation may vary based on the needs of the case. Generally speaking though, the District does the following for each investigation:

  • Communicate with the Complainant(s) (person who experienced the alleged misconduct) and Respondent(s) (person accused of the misconduct) that the investigation is initiated and provide them with their rights and resources during an investigation;
  • Interview the Complainant and, if applicable, the Complainant’s guardian(s);
  • Interview the Respondent and, if applicable, the Respondent’s guardian(s), as well as any other individuals identified that may have information related to the complaint; and
  • Collect other information related to the complaint.

The Complainant and the Respondent each have the right to have an advisor present for the interview and the interviews are conducted individually, meaning there is never a time that they are interviewed at the same time. Each person also has the ability to suggest witnesses and evidence to the investigator.

TO: What is your message to students who are frustrated with the Title IX process? What do you think could be improved upon in the Title IX process? What do you think schools could do to decrease occurrences of sexual assault? To what extent does there need to be a cultural change within PAUSD when discussing sexual assault and harassment? 

KG: I grouped these questions because my responses to each overlap with the others. Soon after I joined the District, I learned about the public scrutiny via Instagram (and other platforms) of the management of Title IX reports. Whenever we learn of information of this nature, my colleagues and I have an obligation to review that information upon receipt to address any immediate safety or support concerns. Once we address this priority, we shift our focus to more deeply analyzing and seeking understanding. I have joined multiple conversations with students and school leadership to continue to seek an understanding of past and current concerns. I am continuing to collect that information so that my colleagues and I can make the adjustments and changes necessary. Process and policies for responding to reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence are most effective when the community has trust in those systems. Creating trust often includes transparency and accessibility of information and consistency in the process. I welcome additional thoughts and feedback that supports this continued improvement.

Decreasing occurrences of sexual harassment and sexual assault is important in our schools, but it is not enough to think of these only in the context of Title IX. Rather, to be thoughtful about the prevention of these occurrences, it has to be put in the context of a social issue and, like all social issues, we only evolve through increased education and dialogue. Title IX provides guidance for the development of policies prohibiting sex-based discrimination. Education and dialogue beyond Title IX include conversations about body autonomy with young people, promoting bystander intervention, sexual respect and affirmative consent.

TO: The two primary complaints that students have had about Title IX at PAUSD is that the district doesn’t always handle cases in a timely manner and that the definition of sexual harassment has been reduced so that an act is only defined as sexual harassment if one student is undeniably blocking another student’s ability to learn. What is your response to such criticism?  

I am new to the District, so I have only witnessed the timeline of a small number of investigations. I can say generally that the timeline of investigations of Title IX or other sexual harassment cases is an area of concern that is discussed broadly among professionals in this field. The timeline for an investigation is influenced by a lot of things, including the availability of parties, the number of witnesses and amount of information to review. It is critical and fair to everyone involved that every investigation is thorough and done well. The best way to counter extended timelines is with transparency and open communication about the progress of the process. When I hear critiques of this nature, I try to look at how we can improve our communication.

This section of the Q&A was conducted with members of the Gunn Title IX Club. 

TO: What are some things that the Gunn Title IX Club has done? 

Title IX Club Vice President Isabella Pistaferri: One big thing that we worked on over the summer and is still going on with the Santa Clara Board of Education is that there was going to be a bill that they [the Board of Education] were going to pass to look into school districts and their handling of Title IX [cases]. We were speaking at the Santa Clara board meeting, and the people at the meeting weren’t really wanting to pass it and were saying that it wasn’t their responsibility. So we decided that we needed to do something about that. We planned a protest outside the Palo Alto representative for the Santa Clara County Board’s [Joseph Simitian] house. It ended up getting passed after our protests, and the people at the meeting, including Joseph Simitian, mentioned that the protest really woke them up to the reality of the issues in the district.

Title IX Club Communications Co-Director Payton Dick: Another thing that we’ve been doing is trying to implement an advisor program, which would basically be chosen staff members who are interested and would like to be a supporter and an advisor for people going through the reporting process. We think that obviously, victims of sexual assault are in an extremely vulnerable place and they’ve probably never had to go through a process like this. So we really want there to be trusted adults that can help them through it. 

Title IX Club Communications Co-Director Anika Rao-Mruthyunjaya: I think the big thing that we noticed is that throughout their planning process, and before that point, even just with consent education, the district is lacking. So we’re trying to work on bettering consent education, both in high school and earlier. We are trying to do basic consent education in elementary schools, middle schools and then just general information stuff so that people are well informed of informational videos and pamphlets. 

TO: What could be improved about the way that the school district handles Title IX cases?

IP: It’s definitely just become clear in the past couple of years that when reporting, yes, the admin urges you to report a Title IX case. But they don’t really give you information on what happens after. The process isn’t one that’s aimed to help survivors and protect them at school. It’s one that’s kind of used to cover up what’s happening in our schools, and in turn, protects perpetrators rather than helping survivors who are reaching out. 

TO: Title IX and sexual assault within schools is a national issue. How do you see the movement within Palo Alto relating to that national movement?

AR-M: When we first started, we did try to make an effort to contact schools in communities that we used to be a part of. I moved here from another state and so I tried to reach out to a bunch of friends. I think we quickly learned that although this is an issue that’s happening around the nation, how each school deals with it is very different. If we can set an example or set a precedent for what to do in a school district, I think that would be one of the greatest successes we could have.

TO: Do you think that there needs to be a cultural shift when it comes to talking about issues like sexual harassment and assault? If so, then what would you envision this cultural shift being?

IP: I think, for sure, because right now, it’s just not really talked about. Something that I have realized that a lot of teens have in common is that no one really received a proper consent education until it was too late. In middle school, we had week-long lessons on sex ed, and I don’t remember a lesson on consent. And consent is still a huge thing that needs to be spoken about. That’s why we’re trying to get it on the elementary level. Consent applies to everything, like asking for a high five or a hug. It’s that simple.

PD: I think also, at least for me, and I think a lot of people can relate to this, when you think of rape or sexual assault, you think of some dark hooded figure on the street grabbing you and hurting you. But in reality more often than not, it’s someone that you trust and someone that you care about. So that’s kind of why consent education specifically, and creating a culture that celebrates consent and teaches good, healthy relationship practices and all those are extremely important. 

TO: How can students, parents and teachers help with this movement to change the dialogue?

AR-M: I think one of the most important things is making sure you’re educated and as supportive as possible. If you see something going on with a friend or someone you know, that you think isn’t okay, bring it up to them. And if a friend comes to you, to talk about an experience they’ve had, I think it’s so important to support them and not question them. Because the last thing you want to do is discourage someone from going through this process if they think something happened. So being as supportive as possible to people as they come to you about this kind of stuff is really important. I think for parents, it’s really important to talk to your kids about this. I think just discussion of consent needs to be more common. It’s really important to make sure that students are as educated as possible so that if something happens to them, they know and they don’t blame themselves. We all need to be as supportive as possible and make this dialogue a little more prevalent in our society because I feel like it’s still a taboo subject when it really shouldn’t be.

IP: [Students] can definitely come to the Title IX Club and help support and they could come to RISE, which is the Title IX Club at [Palo Alto high school]. For people at other schools, if they don’t have such clubs, they should definitely start their own if they feel passionate enough. This is definitely an issue where voices need to be heard.