School officials could not expel three teenage boys charged with sexually battering a classmate at a party last fall, even after she hanged herself and her family complained that a humiliating photo of the alleged assault was being circulated, the superintendent said Wednesday — a statement that was quickly disputed by the lawyer for the girl's family.
Saratoga schools Superintendent Bob Mistele said the boys could not be expelled because the house party where 15-year-old Audrie Pott was allegedly assaulted was not a school-related event.
"School districts cannot suspend or expel someone from school based solely on alleged behavior," he said.
But he said officials did try to take some action. Two of the boys were on the football team, and the coach barred them from participating.
"While education is a fundamental right, participation in sports is a privilege," Mistele explained.
The boys were charged in the fall but remained in school seven months until April 11, when sheriff's deputies took them out of their classrooms and arrested them on charges of sexual battery and distribution of child pornography. Attorneys representing the teens, whose names have not been released because of their ages, did not return repeated calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The Pott family filed a lawsuit against the boys and their families Monday, and has also filed a claim against the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District, alleging that administrators were slack in responding to bullying against Audrie, who committed suicide eight days after she was assaulted.
Her family's attorney alleged that the three suspects took her upstairs to a bedroom during a Labor Day weekend party where she drank a combination of vodka and Gatorade and passed out. The boys allegedly assaulted her, drew and wrote on her, and took a photo of an intimate body part, said attorney Robert Allard.
Allard said the district failed to document a meeting the Pott family had with administrators about bullying several months before Audrie's death. And he said a school official announced her death on school loudspeakers before her family realized that the girl, who had spent two days on life support, had passed away.
In a written statement responding to questions from The Associated Press and other media, Mistele confirmed that administrators had met with the Pott family before her death, but he said "the issue of bullying was not the subject covered in those conversations."
He also said Audrie's stepmother, Lisa Pott, gave the principal permission to announce to the student body that she had died.
"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," he said.
Mistele said that after Audrie's death, a small group of students came to the office to tell an assistant principal that students were talking about an incident at a party involving the girl, and that some photographs were being shared among students.
He said school officials contacted the campus resource officer but it remains "very unclear" whether photographs of the alleged sexual assault were circulated among students on campus.
Allard responded to the school district's statement late Wednesday describing his reaction and that of the Pott family as "one of disgust and dismay."
"Even to this day, it is clear to us that the district is more interested in protecting its image than in taking responsibility for its lack of actions in Audrie's case," the statement said.
Allard said Audrie saw people huddled around a phone and believed her photo was being shared. And the school newspaper reported Sunday that several students whom they did not name thought that about 10 students had seen the photo.
"The whole school is talking about it. My life is over," Audrie wrote in a Facebook message before she killed herself, her stepmother said.
But Mistele said that along with law enforcement investigators, school officials "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."
The three boys spent the weekend in the county juvenile detention center and appeared in court Tuesday. The Santa Clara County sheriff's office did not respond to calls about their current situation.
Mistele said the boys' alleged misconduct now warrants a suspension or placement in independent study to avoid "a disruption or distraction on campus." He said the students' parents have agreed with administrators that they won't go back to campus until the case is resolved, and if they are found guilty, Mistele said the teens could be expelled.
A candlelight vigil is planned for Audrie this Friday at 8 p.m. at Saratoga High School.
Follow Martha Mendoza at https://twitter.com/mendozamartha.