Saratoga High School's Statement on Audrie Pott Case

Apr 21, 2013 11:01 AM EDT

A message to the community -

The Saratoga High School community has been deeply affected by the tragic suicide of Audrie Pott. Her death last fall and the events surrounding it have shocked and saddened us all. As a school and a district we are grieving her loss. Following the news of her death, across the campus, students and staff shared memories of Audrie and mourned together. On-site counselors provided support for students and parents. Our sympathy goes out to her family and friends.

As a school, a district and a community, we work to build a climate where students feel valued and safe. This tragedy highlights the need to continue this work, providing resources and support for students and building a culture of connectedness so that students don't feel alone in times of need.

Recent media coverage of this tragic incident has put Saratoga High School into the public spotlight. However, this incident is now being resolved in the courts. We would ask that the public and the news media focus its attention on the judicial process so that we as a school family can once again focus our full attention on the teaching and learning process.

Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District is an outstanding learning environment with a positive school climate and culture. Keeping our schools safe and free from bullying is a high priority for all of us. We share a common responsibility to stand up to and speak out about inappropriate, harassing behavior whenever we see it, hear about it, or view it on the Internet.

Answers to Frequently Asked Questions Regarding the Audrie Pott Case

The events surrounding Audrie's death have raised questions about the role of the school staff and district leaders in dealing with this incident and its aftermath. Below we have addressed some of those questions and concerns.

Why hasn't the District come forward to respond to media inquiries about this case?

We have limited our public statements primarily for two reasons: (a) all indications show this was not a school-related incident; it was a private situation for the families involved and (b) the district is prohibited by law from disclosing or discussing details of student discipline cases. Keep in mind that this is an ongoing investigation by the Sheriff fs Office. They are still trying to identify exact details of what may or may not have occurred on school grounds before and after the suicide. The district has been cooperating fully with the families and police as this investigation continues. Once the case has been resolved, the district will take the appropriate and lawful disciplinary steps to deal with the students who have been charged.

How is the District limited in what it can say publicly about students?

The public schools are held to very high standards to maintain the privacy rights of students and staff. While individuals can comment about personnel or student discipline matters, the administration cannot. Federal and state laws [Education Code 49060 et. seq.] protect the confidentiality rights of former and current students and prohibit releasing any information directly related to an identifiable student [Education Code 49061 (b)]. There are limited exceptions, which include student expulsion records [Education Code 48918(k)].

When did the school learn about the party and the alleged assault?

After Audrie's suicide, a small group of students voluntarily came to the school office to tell administrators (the assistant principal) there was talk on campus about an alleged incident at a party involving Audrie and that some photographs were being shared among students. The school leaders immediately called in our campus resource officer and he reported it to the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office which prompted the initial investigation. School and district leaders first learned of the allegations of sexual assault from law enforcement as that investigation was being launched. Since this was a preliminary investigation of a hearsay rumor and out of compassion for the family heading into the weekend memorial service, the Sheriff's Office did not immediately notify Audrie's mother that an investigation had been opened. It did so the following Monday. We have continued to cooperate with the families and law enforcement over the last seven months.

The Sheriff fs Office will field any questions asked by the media about notification or time line. Any other questions about the investigation itself should be directed to the Sheriff's Office.

Had Audrie complained to school officials about bullying before the alleged sexual assault?

Our employees take every allegation of bullying seriously and they follow detailed protocols for reporting and handling such situations. Since her death, we have thoroughly examined our counseling records and interviewed our staff to see if there were any warning signs or indications that Audrie was being bullied or harassed at school. That internal investigation showed that she never reported or sought counseling for bullying before or after the alleged sexual assault. If she had, our staff would have reported it and taken preventative steps to stop it. Audrie's mother also confirmed at a press conference that, prior to her suicide, she did not reach out to any adult regarding being bullied. Press statements imply that a year before this incident, Audrie's family had met with school officials to discuss alleged bullying. While we are precluded by law from divulging the specifics of any counseling session with parents and students, we can say that the issue of bullying was not the subject covered in those conversations.

When and how were students notified?

Shortly after her death, the principal was quoted in news reports as saying that, to his knowledge, bullying was not a contributing factor in her suicide. It is very important to note the context and timing of that statement.

The principal had maintained contact with her family and was aware that Audrie was on life support at a local hospital following her suicide. On the morning of Wednesday, September 12, Audrie's stepmother gave the principal permission to announce to the student body that she had died. Rather than letting people hear about Audrie's passing by word-of-mouth, the school leadership decided appropriately to notify students through a brief announcement over the PA at noon and parents through a letter sent home that afternoon. That letter alerted them to available counseling services and offered suggestions on how they could help their children deal with their grief. No mention was made that she had committed suicide. It is a matter of policy and common decency that the school would never announce a student's death without first consulting with the family. That practice was followed in this case.

Were photographs of the sexual assault being circulated among students on campus?

That issue remains very unclear. Along with law enforcement investigators, we have been unable to verify the extent to which any photographic images may have been shared on campus or the Internet before or after her suicide that may have contributed to her feeling embarrassed or harassed. Law enforcement is investigating the extent of the photographs being circulated among students, and the details of the investigation will ultimately be presented to the Courts.

Why weren't the three students expelled or removed from the campus immediately?

California's Education Code 48900(s) limits the jurisdiction of a school district to impose discipline (suspension or expulsion) only for acts that are "related to school activity or attendance." While questionable or unlawful acts may occur at any time, the code lists four primary examples: while on school grounds, while going to or coming from school, during the lunch period whether on or off campus, and during or while going to or coming from a school sponsored activity. That was not the case here. School districts cannot suspend or expel someone from school based solely on alleged behavior outside of school.

Does jurisdiction extend to private parties or other weekend activities involving students?

Only in some circumstances, if non-hearsay evidence establishes a connection to a school activity or attendance [Education Code 48900(s), 48918(f)]. That has not been shown in this situation; this was an unsupervised private party on a holiday weekend.

If the school could not suspend the students why were they dropped from the football team?

Two of the three boys charged with the crime were on the football team and a decision was made to remove them from the team and not allow them to represent the school in that venue. While education is a fundamental right, participation in sports is a privilege. The District therefore had more latitude and discretion when limiting privileges as opposed to rights. Students participating in team sports sign an athletic code of conduct agreement and can be suspended or removed from the team for acts which violate the contract and happen on a weekend.

Will the three students charged in the case be allowed back on campus during the trial?

At this point, the students have been charged with both felony and misdemeanor counts. This alleged misconduct warrants suspension or placement on independent study so as not to cause a disruption or distraction on campus. The students' parents have agreed with district administrators that they will not be returning to campus until the case is resolved. If they are found guilty, then expulsion could occur.

Does the school district have jurisdiction to prevent cyber-bullying?

Education Code 48900.2, 48900.3, 48900.4 and 48900 allow a school district to impose discipline for acts such as sexual harassment, hate violence, harassment, threats, or intimidation, and now cyberbullying. But such off campus acts still must have a provable connection to a school activity or attendance.

What are the district's policies and procedures regarding bullying and cyber-bullying?

The law continues to evolve regarding bullying and cyber-bullying. AB 1729, effective January 1, 2013, amended Education Code 48900(r) to expand the definition of "electronic act" in relation to "cyberbullying." The District, in collaboration with the California School Boards Association, conducts an annual review of its policies and incorporates changes based on new law and court rulings. Current policy prohibits bullying/cyber-bullying and outlines the procedures should a student wish to report bullying and/or file a complaint. Our staff participates in periodic professional development training to understand their mandated reporting requirements. In addition, we hold student assemblies, and parent/staff education meetings regarding the issues around bullying and cyber-bulling. Counseling staff meet with individual students and groups of students and make classroom presentations to make students aware of resources and build a climate where students feel comfortable reporting or seeking help in the event of a bullying incident.

Is the school district being sued by Audrie's parents in this case?

No. Attorneys for Audrie's parents have only filed a pro forma claim against the district as a means of keeping open their options to sue at a later date. That was done on March 7 and was denied by the board of education. This is a common practice in situations where the guilt or innocence of the accused related to a public jurisdiction is still pending.

The school and district have limited knowledge of the actual events because juvenile privacy rights have prevented law enforcement from sharing all of the details about the off-campus incident. The investigation is still ongoing.