Palo Alto Unified School District agrees to $150K Gunn sexual harassment settlement

Sept. 27, 2019, 12:02 a.m.

On Tuesday the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) board unanimously approved a $150K settlement to a female Gunn High School student who had alleged PAUSD mishandled an alleged sexual harassment case involving a male teammate on the robotics team. 

PAUSD’s decision to settle without admitting culpability brings an end to a yearlong legal fight over an alleged sexual assault that has rocked Gunn High School. The case, which originally began as a Title IX complaint in June of last year, raised issues of access to education and male privilege in STEM. 

PAUSD had previously been found to be in violation of Title IX sexual harassment law in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for failure to “to respond promptly and equitably to reports that students were subjected to sexual harassment.” It has been under scrutiny since 2017.

At the center of the current controversy was the school district’s decision in January to allow a student it determined had committed sexual harassment to continue participating in the Gunn robotics team with his victim on an alternating schedule as long as he had an escort present. 

The district’s decision reversed its original removal of the male student from the team. The school had initially enforced a no-contact policy after deciding by preponderance of evidence that the male student had sent harassing texts to and about the female student, whom he had previously dated. The female student’s Title IX complaint also alleged that he had forced oral sex from the plaintiff.

The reversal sparked immediate backlash. In a legal petition filed in late January, the survivor’s legal team wrote, “The district is essentially asking [the female student] to make an impossible choice — to choose either her safety or her access to education.” Within a week of the female student’s petition, a judge granted a stay on the case requiring the high school to bar the male student from the robotics team.

The original ban’s reversal came about due to legal pressure from the male student’s family, who had filed a motion to intervene under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. According to lawyer Alec Rose, the student’s inappropriate behavior was a manifestation of his “significant pragmatic speech disability.” The male student was in special ed classes at the time for his disability. The school district had apparently neglected to complete a necessary “manifestation meeting” to assess whether that disability lessened the student’s responsibility for his actions.

In a petition filed immediately after the school announced its revised directive, lawyers for the victim lambasted the reversal as “a prejudicial abuse of discretion” which “unconstitutionally deprives [the female student] of her right to equal access to education.”

At the time the school district defended its reinstatement of the male student to the robotics team, saying in a public statement that it “tried very hard to balance the rights and needs of both students.” 

In the settlement approved on Tuesday, the school district did not admit wrongdoing. “Respondent expressly denies all allegations of wrongdoing asserted against it and intends merely to avoid litigation and expense by entering into this agreement,” reads the resolution in standard settlement boilerplate. 

The settlement was signed by the female student’s lawyer, Crystal Riggins of law firm Hoge Fenton Jones & Appel. 

Contact Cooper Veit at cveit ‘at’

Cooper Veit '22 is an opinions writer and amateur Steinbeck scholar from San Francisco. Talk to him about the work and life of John Steinbeck, and contact him at cveit 'at'

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