A 16-year-old Gunn High School male student banned from the robotics team after being found to have sexually harassed a female classmate has fired back in new court documents, alleging the school district’s enforcement of her rights violated his rights as a special-education student.
The female student, also 16 years old, turned to the courts to order the school district to reinstate the robotics ban, which was reversed by the district in January as part of a settlement negotiated with the boy’s family, court documents filed Friday show. Both students are minors, belong to the robotics team and dated briefly.
The school district now finds itself in court and will have to answer to how it upheld two distinct federal laws both meant to protect the civil rights of students: gender-equity law Title IX and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Alec Rose, a Southern California attorney who has built a legal practice around defending high school and college students and faculty accused of sexual misconduct, filed a motion to intervene on behalf of the boy, who is identified anonymously as John Roe in court filings. In an emailed statement, Rose characterized his client as a “polite, respectful and very quiet young man” who did not want to enter into this lawsuit.
The male student has a “significant pragmatic speech disability,” which the district determined in 2016 entitled him to special education services, court documents show.
Crystal Riggins, who with Laura Riparbelli of San Jose law firm Hoge Fenton Jones & Appel represent the female student, said that they feel there are “inaccuracies and mischaracterizations” in the boy’s court filings but declined to comment further.
Following an investigation last fall after the girl alleged the boy sexually harassed her, the school district found that text messages he sent to the girl and comments he made about her to other students constituted sexual harassment and decided to remove him from robotics team activities so he and the girl could avoid contact.
In December, the boy’s mother sought to block the district’s action by filing a complaint with the California Office of Administrative Hearings, the process through which special education disputes between families and school districts are resolved.
The district and the boy’s mother ultimately reached a mediated agreement in mid-January, giving him access to robotics team activities so long as an additional staff member, such as an escort, is present. This reversal prompted the girl’s family to file their legal motion in late January, which resulted in a temporary no-contact order that prohibits the male student from attending robotics.
• View a timeline of events in this case here.
Upon learning of the court order, Rose filed papers last week to intervene in the case on behalf of the boy. He argued that the school district failed to comply with federal law, which states that when inappropriate behavior is a manifestation of a disability, the district cannot implement discipline greater than or equivalent to 10 days, according to the court filings. In November, the district prohibited the boy from participating in robotics for the remainder of the school year, starting in January, but apparently failed to conduct the required “manifestation meeting” to determine if the harassment stemmed from his disability, according to the court documents.
The boy “suffers and will suffer irreparable harm if the January directive (between his family and the district) is not reinstated,” his attorney wrote. “He is being deprived of his educational opportunity in violation of the IDEA and the mediation agreement.”
The girl also alleged that the boy sexually assaulted her off campus in January 2018 — which he denied, according to his court documents — and she then ended their relationship, according to her petition. The district did not investigate this allegation “as it occurred away from school,” Title IX Coordinator Megan Farrell wrote in an Oct. 23 outcome letter for the case.
According to Rose, the girl reported her allegations to the Palo Alto Police Department, which conducted an investigation before sending the case to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. The boy denied the allegations and submitted to a police interview, including providing thousands of text messages with her as evidence of “their mutual desire for sexual activity,” court documents state.
The district attorney did not pursue charges in the case, according to Rose’s court filings on behalf of the boy.
The judge overseeing the current case set a new hearing for early March, also postponing the school district’s required response to the girl’s petition, which was initially to be filed on Friday, Feb. 8. The new deadline for the district is Feb. 22. In the meantime, the boy will not be permitted to participate in the robotics program.
The district has proposed that “this matter be submitted to mediation in the hopes that all claims relating to the students can be resolved informally and without court intervention,” Superintendent Don Austin said.
Citing privacy restrictions, district officials have declined to comment further on the case or explain why the district negotiated an agreement with the boy’s family that reversed its earlier actions of removing the boy from the robotics program.