For years, Palo Alto High School was embroiled in controversies related to sexual violence.
A principal was disciplined after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. Two teachers had inappropriate relationships with students, one of whom was sentenced to prison for sex crimes. A student magazine investigated the school's "rape culture," sparking a yearslong probe that resulted in findings by the federal government. A report of a sexual assault in a campus bathroom roiled the community in 2017.
By many accounts, the high school and district as a whole have improved procedures and legal compliance in recent years to the point that Palo Alto Unified is reportedly expecting to be released from federal oversight soon.
But for Paly seniors Katherine Buecheler and Alexa Aalami, personal experience and concerns about a campus culture that still includes casual joking about sexual violence spurred them to action. Together, they're leading a group of students working to educate their peers about sexual assault, consent and relationships — education they say is still very much needed and wanted at their high school, despite the progress that's been made.
The new group of about 20 Paly students from all grade levels, known as Responsive Inclusive Safe Environment (RISE), is an offshoot of the district's identically named task force, which was formed in the wake of the 2017 sexual assault case at Paly. The students want to provide more direct feedback to the adults working to address the issues that teens are experiencing.
"I recognize that while there's a number of students that have ideas on how to improve our education and there's a number of adults that want to hear these voices, there is a disconnect in communication between these two populations," Buecheler said in a presentation to the school board in December.
The seniors pointed to results from a survey Aalami conducted last spring for a class project as evidence of a desire among students for more comprehensive education on sexual violence.
Of the 243 students who responded, 74% said they wanted more education on relationship abuse, 60% wanted more information on intimate partner violence and 58% on federal civil-rights law Title IX, including how to file a complaint. In written comments, they overwhelmingly described a campus where jokes about sexual assault and consent are commonplace and where the administration's attempts at education have largely fallen flat.
Until recently, the primary information on sexual harassment and assault for Paly students came during a mandatory assembly on a "Safe and Welcoming Schools" day, which the surveyed students described as redundant and unmemorable. At a 2018 assembly with Jackson Katz, a national gender violence expert brought in by the district, a group of students "heckled" and "loudly challeng(ed)" Katz, student news outlet the Paly Voice reported.
"After assemblies when people are coming out, they'll be like, 'Oh, is it OK, can I touch you?'" in a joking manner, Buecheler said. "It's just not a good campus environment."
Aalami also made a pamphlet for her classmates that laid out how to report sexual harassment or assault — a process she didn't understand before her class project.
"Students said, 'I don't know how to file a report,' even after all these initiatives, which is kind of problematic," she said. "I think there's just a gap because I know these resources exist having done the research."
The Paly students have advised the district that smaller, more interactive group discussions that go beyond the basics would more effectively reach students. For Buecheler, more powerful than Katz's assembly was a classroom discussion her teacher facilitated afterwards "in which students seemed to feel comfortable to candidly express their perspectives and openly share their experiences with these issues," she said at the Dec. 10 board meeting.
The student group has also worked with Anea Bogue, a sexual-health educator and coach the district brought in to lead workshops on sexual violence at the high schools. (Staff will also be teaching additional lessons developed by Bogue to eighth graders and high schools this semester.) The Paly students asked Bogue to address the issues illustrated by Aalami's survey, including how to minimize joking, to encourage more meaningful conversation and to address students' desire for information about healthy and unhealthy relationships. They also suggested including real-life case studies for students to grapple with. (Survey responses indicated students want more serious, engaging curriculum that treats them "more honestly as adults," one student wrote.)
Involving student leaders in education would also be more impactful, they said, to signal that sexual assault is an issue that their peers notice so "you should notice it, and you should take it seriously," Buecheler said.
The students said they encounter a range of attitudes around sexual violence at Paly. Some male students have told Aalami that they think the #MeToo movement is a "witch hunt" and believe most accusations are false. Other students, like sophomore Kyla Schwarzbach, are alarmed by her peers' dismissal of more casual harassment that doesn't rise to the level of sexual assault or rape.
She's heard peers make comments like, "It only happened once" or "It was no big deal."
"I think that's just unacceptable," said Schwarzbach, a member of the student RISE group. "If something makes you feel uncomfortable, it should be addressed and it should be taught that that's not OK. Harassment is not just rape. Other things happen, too, that go super unnoticed."
The anonymous student responses on Aalami's survey also reflect that dichotomy of opinions:
"I wish students didn't treat it as a taboo topic and were able to speak comfortably about it."
"If something happens they need to tell someone."
"Everyone already knows about sexual harassment, so get rid of the discussions and just spend the time on something actually meaningful."
"I know some laugh as a coping mechanism to deal with uncomfort, but many students make tasteless jokes about serious issues that are being perpetuated in the culture of the school."
Parent education is also critical, the students said. (Bogue did give public talks for parents as well in 2018.) Schwarzbach recalled her parents talking to her at a young age about bodily autonomy and to her brother about respecting women.
"Culture of consent starts at home," she said. "I think a bunch of parents here (think), 'My kid would never do that.' I think they're also scared of it and they don't want to talk about it because it's still considered taboo. Starting education with parents as well and getting parents to come to assemblies, even in elementary school and middle school," is important.
The Paly students have split into groups to work on specific projects this semester, including an April panel event featuring students from Stanford University, Foothill College and other local colleges. They plan to allow seniors to ask the young adults questions about navigating consent, relationships and related issues after high school.
Another subset of the group is organizing a slam poetry night for teens to express themselves about sexual violence. Tickets for the event will include resources and information about the Title IX reporting process.
The group also wants to help to create an analogous student RISE group at Gunn High School.
Katherine Buecheler and Alexa Aalami join reporter Elena Kadvany to discuss their new student advocacy group on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.