Despite the fact that 10 percent of Palo Alto Unified high school students have experienced sexual harassment at school at least once in the past 12 months — and some more often than that — the vast majority of those students did not report the incidents to anyone at school.
This problem of "non-reporting," Superintendent Max McGee said at Tuesday's school board meeting, was illustrated in results of a survey the district was required to give to students, parents and staff this spring under a resolution agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The federal agency is currently monitoring the district after finding it violated anti-discrimination law Title IX in multiple cases of sexual harassment, assault and misconduct involving students and staff at the district's two high schools.
As the district works to improve its procedures and culture around sexual violence, the new survey results provide insight into how frequently students experience sexual harassment at school.
Sixty-seven percent of enrolled high school students, or 2,549, took the survey. A total of 243 students from Palo Alto and Gunn high schools indicated on the survey that they had been sexually harassed at school in the past year, and 88 percent of them never reported it. A similar percentage (81 percent) also said they never reported it to anyone outside of school.
The Office for Civil Rights defines sexual harassment as "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature" that includes "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature."
Most of the harassed students, 73 percent, said they didn't report the incident because they felt that they "did not need help." In open-ended responses, the students also indicated they didn't report because they considered the behavior to be "no big deal," "ordinary" and even "normal," according to a staff report on the survey results.
Twenty percent of surveyed students also said that most peers at their school accept "minor" acts of harassment on an almost daily basis.
About 18 percent of the students had also witnessed sexual harassment, and the majority also chose not to report it inside or outside of school.
There's a similar trend among parents: 8 percent said that their child had been sexually harassed in the previous year at school, but only 31 percent of those reported it. Some parents said this was because it "'did not rise to the level' of being important enough to report," the staff report states, "immediately after reading and responding positively to a prompt that defined sexual harassment as unwanted."
Most parents who did report an incident, 61 percent, said the school's response was "not effective at all" or "slightly effective."
Most students and parents do believe, however, that their schools would take reports of sexual harassment seriously, according to the survey.
Six percent of staff members who took the survey said they had witnessed an incident of sexual harassment directly in the last year, while 27 percent said it had occurred "to their knowledge." Most staff — 81 percent — who witnessed an incident reported it to their school administrator, and they felt more positively about the effectiveness of the schools' response, according to the survey.
All of the staff members who took the survey reported that if a student tells them they have been sexually harassed, "I will do something to help."
The survey also indicated a lack of awareness about resources that are available to students to prevent sexual harassment. Only half of surveyed students said they had been exposed to education about appropriate boundaries between students and staff.
The survey results come at a time when the district is working to address the violations identified by the Office for Civil Rights in its yearslong investigations in the district, including by revising its policies, increasing staff training and hiring a dedicated, district-level Title IX coordinator to oversee complaints.
The survey results provide insight into where further effort is needed, McGee said Tuesday night.
"There are many different reasons for this," McGee said of the low reporting rates. "To be sure, some of it is about the school response, but the primary reason was that this behavior was 'just joking,' or 'no big deal,' or 'kind of kidding' or 'just that's the way it is.' That's going to change, and it's going to change now."
The district plans to increase education around sexual harassment, including by partnering with Paly's and Gunn's student governing bodies as well as parent groups to come up with impactful ways to do so. The district is already required to train staff members on their legal obligations to comply with district policy and federal and state law related to sexual misconduct; more intensive trainings were completed earlier this month and will be offered again in September, staff said Tuesday.
The district will continue to administer the survey annually to assess perceptions on sexual harassment as well as school climate, safety and school responsiveness.
On Tuesday evening, the school board discussed related policy changes required under the federal resolution agreement to make sure the district complies with Title IX.
The updated board policy would lay out three paths for what students or parents can choose to do when reporting sexual misconduct. First, they can proceed under the district's formal Uniform Complaint Procedure for investigating such complaints. Second, with the consent of all parties involved — including both the alleged victim and alleged perpetrator — they can pursue an informal resolution. The third option is to not pursue any formal process, though the district is still obligated to evaluate whether they have a responsibility to investigate and address any misconduct.
Policy requires school administrators to explain to students and parents how each option differs and for staff to follow specific reporting timelines and documentation requirements.
"Each one of those pathways, regardless of which one is chosen ... involves some amount of investigation, involves keeping the parties updated as to what's happening, documenting the decisions that are made along the way, providing a written notice of outcome and all of them are completed within 60 calendar days of the district's receipt of a report," said Eve Fichtner, an attorney from firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo who has been working on the policy revisions for the district.
Most board members said they were encouraged by improvement in the draft policy changes, but as a board they decided to postpone approving the policies until a later meeting so they could further digest them.
Vice President Ken Dauber said he was "uncomfortable," however, with new language around staff sexually "grooming" students. The draft policy prohibits sexual relationships between employees and former students "if the employee's pursuing behavior took place in an educational setting," defined as any school or district program, activity or physical site. Dauber worried that this definition could limit the district's ability to protect students fully from inappropriate relationships with teachers or staff, arguing that inappropriate behavior that takes place at a coffee shop, for example, has the same "negative effect" on a student.
Fichtner said the district does not have jurisdiction over non-educational settings but that it is required to respond to any off-campus behavior if it impacts students on campus.
In response to concerns from a parent, the board also discussed making sure the policies are compliant with not only Title IX but also state law and regulations.
The board's policy review committee will discuss the revisions at its first meeting of the year on Aug. 31.
The Office for Civil Rights has approved the updated policies and has instructed the district to do the same by particular deadlines in September.
At its meeting the school board also unanimously approved an increased legal services budget for the 2017-18 school year that includes an additional $200,000 to investigate recent reports of sexual violence in the district.
The law firm in charge of those investigations is close to issuing a much-anticipated report on how senior leadership responded to a student sexual-assault case at Paly last year. Dauber said the firm, Cozen O'Connor, is planning on making the report available in draft form on the first week of September.
In other business Tuesday, the school board unanimously voted to replace a law firm that has provided personnel services for the district, Lozano Smith, with an existing firm, Dennis Woliver Kelley.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of sexual misconduct in the Palo Alto school district. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.