As a surge of students share their experiences with sexual misconduct online, members of the Palo Alto High School community are providing opportunities for discussion and demanding changes in campus culture and education surrounding sexual abuse.
At least 20 local students have come forward on social media platforms such as Instagram with their stories surrounding sexual assault in the past week, raising issues of rape culture and the Palo Alto Unified School District’s handling of Title IX cases. Multiple students have said that they were raped by the same former Paly student, while others detailed stories of groping and other instances of sexual assault. Many described difficulties with reporting their cases, and expressed anger with the district’s handling of their allegations.
Paly Responsive Inclusive Safe Environment Student Task Force, a club focused on improving the Paly culture surrounding sexual misconduct, is hosting an open meeting during lunch tomorrow to discuss recent events and offer support for victims and allies.
“It was heartbreaking to see all these tragic stories come forth publicly, but at the same time, there was something in me that knew that this was the tipping point,” senior and co-President Dani Colman said. “By flooding social media with stories … I think that students, especially now, understand the urgency and ubiquity of sexual assault in our community.”
With sexual misconduct in the spotlight, 53 new students joined the club’s Remind text-notification group over just the last couple of days, according to Colman. She hopes that this momentum continues and motivates change to campus culture.
“Palo Alto students are kind of feeling right now as though they haven’t been heard over the last few years,” Colman said. “We witnessed the mishandling of several sexual assault cases and I think that seeing that kind of chaos and hysteria erupt in our community has made students feel as though it’s just better and easier for them to stay silent.”
Colman and co-President Kyla Schwarzbach are among many in the district calling for reform. They hope the board will consider redesigning its sexual assault student education initiatives to shift away from mandatory assemblies and towards peer-led discussions.
“We want teens to be helping to create these classes and these consent courses,” Schwarzbach said. “There definitely is a very different atmosphere when an adult is … telling you not to do something versus when you have a peer who’s like, ‘Hey, … here’s how you can not be a perpetrator of sexual assault.’”
Bring Change 2 Mind, a Paly club dedicated to fighting the stigma surrounding mental health, is also holding a meeting Thursday during lunch to discuss the intersection of sexual misconduct and mental health. Three members of Paly’s Wellness Team will be present to help facilitate discussion among students.
“I’m really hopeful that a lot of people will show up and that the message is being shared,” said club president Audrey Joachim, who is also a Verde staff member.
The meeting will cover three main points: how to address mental health issues triggered by sexual misconduct; how to support survivors, friends of accused assaulters and oneself; and how to take action beyond social media.
Joachim plans to add additional meetings to the club’s regular bi-weekly schedule to further examine this issue and provide follow-up to Thursday’s meeting.
Leaders from Paly RISE and Bring Change 2 Mind are also working together to gather resources on the district’s Title IX complaint process and student mental health in response to sexual misconduct.
Several student publications have also stepped forward to address the situation, including InFocus News.
In an Instagram press release stating support for sexual assault survivors, InFocus announced their decision to remove video packages produced by a former InFocus staff member and Paly student who was accused of sexual assault.
“I think as a publication, what we’re doing is the bare minimum, but it is our responsibility to ensure that we do not promote nor contribute to a culture that allows this to happen — both in the past and currently,” InFocus Executive Producer Cody Hmelar said.
Title IX is a federal law that bans violations of laws and discriminatory harassment, including sexual misconduct, in schools or other federally funded education programs.
To file a sexual misconduct complaint with the district, students must report the incident to a school district employee, the district Title IX office or through the anonymous Title IX complaint form, from which the office will open an investigation between the complainant and the respondent (the alleged perpetrator of the incident). At the end of an investigation, a decision letter will be sent to the parents of the complainant and respondent (unless one is over the age of 18) to discuss violations of policy and potential disciplinary action.
“The Palo Alto Unified School District takes all reports of discriminatory harassment, including sexual harassment and sexual violence seriously,” PAUSD Title IX Coordinator Kelly Gallagher wrote in an email. “We are aware of the reports and concerns related to sexual violence that have been posted to social media.”
Gallagher encouraged students looking to share new allegations with the district to file a report with the Title IX office.
“It is my understanding that there are incidents referenced in these posts that were previously reported to the district and, in those cases, an investigation was initiated to review the matters,” she wrote.
Additional reporting by Ishani Raha
Below is a collection of resources for issues of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
The PAUSD Title IX Coordinator
Palo Alto Unified School District
25 Churchill Ave
Palo Alto, CA 94306
Paly Wellness Center
National Sexual Assault Hotline
- Free and confidential 24/7 support
- 800-656-HOPE (4673)
Domestic Violence Crisis Line
- 24/7 crisis hotline
Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse
- Provides crisis intervention, counseling and civil legal services for victims of domestic violence.
Domestic Violence Intervention Collaborative
- Individual therapy, groups, and classes.
I Wanna Know
- Sexual health information for teens and young adults.
Know Your IX
- A survivor and youth-led project of Advocates for Youth with resources, guides and support for students to end sexual and dating violence in their schools.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- Information and resource hub for all issues related to sexual violence and its prevention including publications and a searchable library.
- Sexual health information, resources and services for teens
- Text “PPNOW” to 774636
Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
- Hotline routes callers to local affiliated organizations. Online chat with counselors. A National database to help find local sexual assault services, resources and guides for “Talking to your kids about sexual assault”, how to reduce risk of assault, the procedures to report these crimes and the process for healing and recovery.
- Online chat: hotline.rainn.org/online
Rape Trauma Services
- 24/7 Rape crisis intervention hotline, advocacy and accompaniment; individual, group family counseling.
- Crisis Line: 650-692-7273
- General: 650-652-0598
U.S. Department of Justice
- Information for Parents & Guardians talking with children about sexual abuse and violence
YWCA Silicon Valley
- Rape crisis intervention, advocacy and accompaniment, individual, group, family counseling, sexual assault, domestic violence, and human trafficking support, emergency shelter and legal help.
- Crisis: 1-800-572-2782
- San Jose: 408-295-4011
- Sunnyvale: 408-749-0793
AACI Asian Women’s Home
- Emergency shelter for women and children, case management, crisis intervention services, help with restraining orders, family law, and immigration issues.