Survey probes perceptions, frequency of sexual harassment at school | News | Palo Alto Online |


Survey probes perceptions, frequency of sexual harassment at school

District finds 88 percent of surveyed students who were sexually harassed on campus never reported it

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


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11 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2017 at 10:58 am

What I have repeatedly been asking in recent months and not getting an answer is why girls are going into boys bathrooms and why boys are going into girls bathrooms?

Is there a school rule that forbids boys and girls going into each other's bathrooms?

If a boy or girl are found to have been in the "wrong" bathroom is there a procedure to deal with this?

What is the "punishment" for someone being in the wrong bathroom?

If sex is going on in school bathrooms, how can the schools prevent this from happening?

Are bathrooms a safe place for our students?

I don't have kids in high school at present, but this is the type of information I would want if I did. It worries me a lot that nobody thinks going into the wrong bathroom for any reason is a red flag. For me, going into the wrong bathroom is completely wrong. We must send our kids the message that there are reasons why we have separate bathrooms even in elementary schools. Without having separate bathroom culture we are taking a step backwards in my opinion.

33 people like this
Posted by Another Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 23, 2017 at 11:03 am

I’m not surprised that most students and parents believe that their school would take reports of sexual harassment seriously, however most parents who did report an incident said the school’s response was not effective. I felt the same way. Of course you assume your school will do its best to protect you. Until it happened to my daughter, I assumed the school would do the right thing. It’s not until you are in the situation that you realize how ineffective most administrators are.

6 people like this
Posted by Orin Bailey
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2017 at 11:18 am

> What I have repeatedly been asking in recent months and not getting an answer is why girls are going into boys bathrooms and why boys are going into girls bathrooms?

Is there a school rule that forbids boys and girls going into each other's bathrooms?

If a boy or girl are found to have been in the "wrong" bathroom is there a procedure to deal with this?

What is the "punishment" for someone being in the wrong bathroom?

Does this have anything to do with the 'transgender' choice of restroom legalization?

12 people like this
Posted by Want to know
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2017 at 11:27 am

If a married teacher is having an affair with another teacher, and the students know it, is the discomfort that the student feels when they see the 2 teachers touching each other a form of sexual harassment to the student?

Is there any "morality" clause in the teachers contract with the school?

20 people like this
Posted by PAUSD Parent
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 23, 2017 at 11:42 am

@Another Parent - YES - Over 80% of parents thought the "school would take the matter seriously" if they reported sexual harassment (q58). But of those who DID report it, over 60% said the response was "slightly" or "not at all" effective (q59). Over 60%! Only 18% said "very" or "extremely" effective.

This is the story of PAUSD. We believe that they do a good job; we trust them. WE WANT TO BELIEVE. But then, when something happens, THEY OFTEN DON'T DO A GOOD JOB. They don't follow the rules, they don't listen, they screw up, and then cover up. The survey says that, in stark numbers.

Wake up Board. Wake up Parents. Stop believing our own BS and get your act together.

15 people like this
Posted by Reality
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2017 at 11:50 am

@Parent -
Do you think the problem here is that the bathrooms are providing a place for students to engage in sexual behavior? If you strictly regulate the bathrooms, do you think students who want to have sex (or do anything they are interested in doing together) won't find another place to do it?
And what about our gay students? They are "supposed to be" in bathrooms with other students they may be engaging in activities with.
The problem isn't the location. The issue is understanding consent and sexual harassment. The issue is knowing what you are comfortable with and feeling ok about it. The issue is listening to the wishes of the people you are engaging in this activity with. That's what the district needs to fix. And the city needs to fix. And the nation needs to fix.

25 people like this
Posted by Floored
a resident of Professorville
on Aug 23, 2017 at 12:57 pm

Our administrators are inefficient as well as ineffective.
We all agree on this!

So what exactly do they DO that justifies salaries 2-4x that of over half the parents of PAUSD students??

Obviously, precious little! Their salaries could be cut in half-- and half of them laid off--and they would still be a poor value.

24 people like this
Posted by Just Say No
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 23, 2017 at 1:07 pm

Simple solution. Restroom Monitors.

If the PAUSD can afford to pay the superintendent such an exorbitant salary, it can afford to pay someone minimum wage to keep an eye on things during periodic HS restroom breaks.

Keep it simple...'No smoking' or 'getting it on' in the restrooms. 'Violators will be subject to detention'. Done deal.

11 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 23, 2017 at 1:51 pm

The reason I ask my questions about bathrooms is because when I was in high school, it was generally known that if a girl wasn't interested in a boy's advances, she would run into the nearest girls' bathroom and stay there until class started even if it meant she was late to her next class. There were times that boys hung around outside of the girls bathrooms and were told to move on by teachers.

It seems that nowadays the safe haven of escaping into a bathroom doesn't appear to be a girl's best form of defense.

7 people like this
Posted by concern
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 23, 2017 at 7:12 pm

the bathroom in interior buildings that are not supervised at breaks or during class are off limits for my own kids. Kids should not have access to private bathroom that locks from the inside after the events from last year and the many, many false fire alarms from lighters held to smoke detectors. I told them to use the ones across at Peets coffee. It is actually much safer which is sad but true

11 people like this
Posted by Kathy Jordan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2017 at 7:53 am

It would be nice if the students could count on their administration to support them and do the right thing when sexual harassment or sexual assault takes place. But unfortunately that's not what happened at Paly with the two recent sexual assaults that came out in the news that we know about. Teachers did the right thing, but certain Paly administrators did not. No Title IX investigation in either case; the District has admitted it. Little remediation for the victims to be able to continue to attend school. Neither perpetrator expelled, even though sexual assault was alleged.

If anyone has information about incidents of this type being mishandled at any of our PAUSD schools, such as not implementing commensurate punishment for the offense, no Title IX investigation or report being produced, we'd like to know more so we can work to hold our administrators accountable. Also, if anyone has information on further harassment or abuse that took place by the two perpetrators at Paly, the Nov. 2015 perpetrator or the Oct. 11,2016 perpetrator, particularly after they should have been expelled for their actions, we'd welcome that as well to work to hold these certain administrators accountable.

2 people like this
Posted by connect
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 24, 2017 at 7:58 am

surveys are not the authority because no one knows exactly who responded. I am not sure why putting out a survey is so impressive. I am more impressed with quick personal response and enforcement of the many, many codes and rules that are just sitting there to guide decisions. Tested and well crafted board policy, ed code should be what they rely on, not public opinion. maybe polls are ok for nonsensical things like naming schools or playground colors.

4 people like this
Posted by Another Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 24, 2017 at 10:09 am

@Kathy Jordan - "If anyone has information .... we'd like to know more so we can work to hold our administrators accountable."

Are you with a specific committee that we should contact? Who are the "we" in your statement?


5 people like this
Posted by Kathy Jordan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2017 at 12:47 pm

There are a number of community members who are committed to combating sexual harassment and unlawful discrimination in our schools. Please feel free to contact me if you like:

7 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 24, 2017 at 4:49 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Why would any girl who was a victim of sexual assault report it? The school administration would be very likely to be unresponsive or ineffective in dealing with it. There would be a serious wave of victim blaming, as we have witnessed, including on this forum, after every sexual assault in the Palo Alto high schools and Stanford. There would be a wave of sympathy for the attacker, same as above. The victim would be re victimized, and many victims just don't wish to be victimized again and again.

2 people like this
Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 24, 2017 at 5:15 pm

@Want to Know, I can't believe you're asking about morality clauses for teachers who are presumably consenting adults and whether "touching" traumatizes kids. How do you know whether or not the "touching" is simply a friendly gesture and is playing morality police really what you want your kids focusing on in school?

Whose "morality" would you propose enforcing and do you expect taxpayers to pay for it. The school district and the city have more important things to do than playing nanny to adults,

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 24, 2017 at 5:15 pm

I would like to thank immigrant parent for commenting.

This shows me that there are pressures being put on our students from parents.

8 people like this
Posted by Kathy Jordan
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 24, 2017 at 6:36 pm

To @Mauricio - I think a victim of sexual assault would report it because he/she wants to stand up for herself/himself and see justice be done. I think she might want to prevent further assaults on victims by speaking out. I think she may feel that she is alive and that she doesn't want her life to be defined by this one bad thing that happened to her. I think she has had this experience and may want to share her story, for her own mental and physical health, and to help others who may have gone through the same thing.

What is sad is when certain people we pay from our taxpayer dollars to care for our students choose not to do the right thing and essentially victimize these victims, which are our children. How dare they? And what are we going to do about it?

5 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 25, 2017 at 10:31 am

Kathy, when my daughter was at Paly, not that long ago( she graduated in 2009), she told me several times of girls who had been sexually attacked, even raped, mostly by jocks, but not just jocks, who refused to report it for the reasons I had mentioned in my earlier post.

Those who claim there is no rape culture in Paly (I don't know about Gunn) and Stanford of course, don't know what they are talking about or perhaps have a mentality similar to that of a certain judge who is in a spot of trouble right now.

8 people like this
Posted by White Elephant
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 28, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Thank you Kathy Jordan for your tireless efforts to hold adults in the administration responsible for their poor judgement, poor performance, and unlawful actions, when they did not protect our minors after they became aware of the abuse. Their job performance is disgraceful, and ignorance of their duty and lack of good judgement is exactly the reason they need to be fired. All this when they were under title IX investigation for dropping the ball prior to these incidents!!! The Paly admin. behaved like a bunch of spoiled rotten kids who think they can do whatever they like and get away with it, while getting paid tax payer money too. This is unacceptable. They did not just ignore a minor scrapped knee. They ignored abuse of minors and this should not be tolerated, nor swept under the rug. These people should be fired.

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