From the Community | Will PAUSD ever learn how to protect survivors of sexual violence?

Opinion by Laura Malagrino
Feb. 22, 2021, 7:55 p.m.

In my freshman year I sat crowded next to my peers in the newly renovated gym, all gathered for an assembly on sexual assault. From the height of the bleachers, I saw the entire freshman class, over 500 students crammed together. The constant noise that bounced around the gym was fueled by predictions about and early criticisms of the speaker who had yet to present. When the speaker began his presentation, I expected him to outline stories of sexual assault and the trauma that followed – he instead called on other men to rebuke sexist behaviors and end the stigma within the male community.

I was pleasantly surprised – this was a take I had never heard before, and I thought it was a more effective approach than the usual cautionary tale of a drunken encounter gone wrong. But when I heard the comments and questions from my classmates, mostly mocking the presenter, I realized not everyone was as grateful as I. How could this be? I was utterly convinced that sexism did not exist in my community, but hearing my classmates jeer at a thoroughly well-presented assembly on such a serious issue was a slap in the face.

Now, as a senior at Palo Alto High School and an editor-in-chief of our news and features magazine, I’ve had the time to uncover only a portion of the myriad of cases in which the District failed to adequately protect survivors of sexual assault. Knowing what I know now, I’m almost jealous of my naivete, believing everything was perfect because I did not see, hear or feel it. I truly believed that because Palo Alto was a liberal haven, that it was immune to injustice.

After that first assembly, the fog which once obscured my reality started to lift. Every semester I attended one of the mandatory assemblies, all on the same topic of sexual violence, consent and stigma, and every semester I heard people make jokes, laugh at the subject and completely ignore the reality of assault.

It seemed to me that no matter how many school-wide assemblies I attended, I kept hearing from social media or word of mouth of some assault or rape that had taken place between students. Beginning in freshman year, I would hear from a friend or classmate of a risky situation that occurred at a party the night before. Or, in more extreme cases, survivors took to social media to share their experience. I never would have expected so much of my high school experience to be centered around sexual violence. I always thought it would be, “Did you see Josh’s promposal?” and not, “Did you hear what Zach did to Tina at the football game?” Besides all the hearsay, I never saw any repercussions – the assaults quickly became a part of the past.

Until about a week ago, I never knew whether all of these people I had heard about actually reported their experiences to the Title IX office or if they just kept it to themselves. Recently, my social media has been flooded with people sharing not only their experiences of sexual violence with other students in the District but also negative experiences with the Title IX office. People who had reported claimed that nothing changed, and that they sometimes remained in the same classes as their abuser. With an abundance of stories all gathered on social media, the pieces fell into place, and I realized that despite all the assemblies, the District failed to truly protect survivors.

One student took to social media to voice their frustration with the District’s Title IX office after trying to file a report. According to this student, the staff member in charge was unprofessional during the process – answering phone calls and making inappropriate comments about the student’s appearance. I’ve also heard of other students who, after reporting, were still in classes with their abusers. A most notable case was one at Gunn High School, where the District allowed a student who sexually assaulted one of his teammates to return to Robotics team practices, despite an agreement between the District and the survivor’s parents that banned the assaulter from attending practices. Even after being investigated by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for their misconduct with numerous cases, the District hasn’t seemed to learn.

I began seeing the ways Palo Alto as a whole struggled with adequately addressing the issue of sexual assault. With cases such as Brock Turner’s or Brett Kavanaugh’s being so close to home and even a past tutor of mine being arrested for sexual misconduct, I started to understand how flawed my once-perfect town truly is. As I put the pieces together, the threat became much more real.

And now with another wave of allegations and inaction from administrations, it’s evident the District has learned nothing from its mistakes. As a District that has struggled with assault allegations for over a decade, I implore PAUSD to realize that their current methods – a mandatory class with a two-week unit on sex and schoolwide assemblies – are insufficient and a waste of time and resources. Sex education should not start in high school. Yes, middle schoolers do get a tiny crumb of sex education, but it is so vague and lackluster that it all it does is fuel a choir of laughs and giggles every time the word penis or vagina is uttered.

The Title IX office – a department enshrouded in controversy and stigma – needs to improve on its connection with students. I personally know classmates that have either chosen not to go to the Title IX office because they felt it would not improve their situation, or chose to report and were greatly dissatisfied with their experience. I also know other students who are unfamiliar with the reporting process and have no idea how the Title IX office functions. The time spent on certain mandatory assemblies could be better used to familiarize students with the Title IX office and the various processes for reporting acts of assault and discrimination. The Title IX office did not respond to specific questions for this story.

As for the daunting, oh-so-scary c-word – yes, consent – it can be addressed as early as elementary school or kindergarten. Let me draw from one of the many assemblies I’ve attended in my time at Paly: consent is as simple as making someone a cup of tea. You can teach six-year-olds what consent is without telling them about the birds and the bees, and maybe, when they get to their inaugural sexual assault assembly at the helm of their high school career, they’ll actually learn something, and a sexual assault will no longer be a rite of passage for students in the District.

Contact Laura Malagrino at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

Laura is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.

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