News

At one Palo Alto school, long troubled by sexual misconduct, a new student advocacy group is born

Teens push for more serious, engaging education on campus

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.

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"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."

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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.

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

At one Palo Alto school, long troubled by sexual misconduct, a new student advocacy group is born

Teens push for more serious, engaging education on campus

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Fri, Feb 7, 2020, 8:32 am
Updated: Fri, Feb 7, 2020, 3:36 pm

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.

Comments

Scotty
Green Acres
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:18 am
Scotty, Green Acres
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:18 am
22 people like this

Based on the headline alone, thought this would be about Stanford, not Paly.


Sally
Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:49 am
Sally, Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:49 am
29 people like this

It's terrific to see young women taking the lead in changing the norms of their peer-space, knowing their rights, and supporting each other.

I am curious what channels exist for challenging administration malpractice (or accusations thereof) in handling these issues. I know (to put it mildly) that this has been a difficult issue for PAUSD in the past. Any information is welcome!


A He-She Speaks
another community
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:51 am
A He-She Speaks, another community
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:51 am
14 people like this

This is a very serious concern & issue that will continually need to be addressed as society recognizes more individuals of gender diversities.

Keep in mind that 'recognize' is not synonymous with 'acceptance' so assaults & bullying will always remain on the horizon for some.

As a 'he-she' I am often very frightened at times...especially if some guy turns on me because I happen to be a pre-transexual male.


Don't do anything extra
Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:06 am
Don't do anything extra, Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:06 am
22 people like this

Addressing the extreme peer pressure from district administrators and also from other parents and other students to silence speaking up about incidents and harassment -----might be a good topic. What about addressing how a student publication repeatedly published a claim that an alleged Paly sexual assault incident was 'consensual' without providing any verification of that, apparently relying on the word of an administrator likely trying to save her job, while refusing to publish the public statements of the victim contradicting that claim? What about addressing other examples in the past of administrators and advisers using student publications to help the district cover up its mishandling and misconduct? Check the articles in student publications around Paly principal Phil Winston's departure, for example, when he actually departed Paly and PAUSD due to his sexual harassing conduct.


Don't do anything extra
Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:55 am
Don't do anything extra, Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 11:55 am
18 people like this

Hey, what about the new HS principals? Maybe the RISE students could consider suggesting that candidates shouldn't be considered for HS principal if they couldn't follow Title IX/UCP/anti-discrimination laws affecting students, like Laurence and Paulson couldnt. Or that candidates shouldn't be considered if they couldn't follow other laws affecting students either.


Samuel L.
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2020 at 1:48 pm
Samuel L., Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2020 at 1:48 pm
20 people like this

It's good to see the students get involved. The adults in the district are more concerned with optics rather than progress. The students actually know what is going on at the campuses. The board and the district just listen to their yes-men and believe the overly positive spin on the horrible situation.


Samuel L.
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2020 at 1:54 pm
Samuel L., Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 7, 2020 at 1:54 pm
21 people like this

@Don't do anything extra - Exactly! Neither of them should have been promoted. I would actually say that no one within the district should be given either principal position. I find it hard to believe that there's anyone in the district that was unaware of what was being hidden and buried. Teachers knew about the assaults, as did principals, assistant principals, etc... They've all be trained to stay quiet and let the lawyers figure it out.


Need Prevention (Education)
Palo Alto High School
on Feb 7, 2020 at 2:32 pm
Need Prevention (Education), Palo Alto High School
on Feb 7, 2020 at 2:32 pm
9 people like this

Hard to believe how neglected this issue is locally. Time to speak up!
Why can't a teacher or principal call in an accused student and have an *informal* discussion. No need for lawyers and administrative flutter at this early point. No need for records being kept, except by the principal, privately.
Bad behavior can often be avoided by early intervention.
Otherwise known as teaching.

And how about some meetings for boys only, to enlighten them to teach them civilized behavior.


Another He-She
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 3:18 pm
Another He-She, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 7, 2020 at 3:18 pm
6 people like this

> As a 'he-she' I am often very frightened at times...especially if some guy turns on me because I happen to be a pre-transexual male.

It would be potentially even worse to be a he-she residing in a 'red state' where there is minimal tolerance or acceptance of gender diversity...it's bad enough in the SF Bay Area.

Excessive alcohol consumption + male lust + eventual anger (or ostracization by peers) often contributes to many of these gender mistaken crimes.

I am scared but proud of who I am!


R2
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2020 at 8:16 pm
R2, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2020 at 8:16 pm
13 people like this

How about the students who falsely claim harassment by others?
It is out of control.


Anonymous1
another community
on Feb 8, 2020 at 8:17 am
Anonymous1, another community
on Feb 8, 2020 at 8:17 am
5 people like this

First project. What happens after the report. How to document and how to sue abusers safely.


Independent
Esther Clark Park
on Feb 8, 2020 at 8:25 am
Independent, Esther Clark Park
on Feb 8, 2020 at 8:25 am
13 people like this

@Need Prevention - because there are laws that dictate what must happen if sexually misconduct is alleged at school, that's why.

If a teacher sexually harasses a student, that's just a private conversation? No, I don't think so.


Survivor
Palo Alto High School
on Feb 8, 2020 at 11:44 am
Survivor, Palo Alto High School
on Feb 8, 2020 at 11:44 am
31 people like this

From personal experience, I can say that Paly has a culture that enables sexual violence. I am a survivor of sexual assault during my time at the school. I am proud of these young people for the work they are doing. You give me hope!


Anonymous1
another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:34 pm
Anonymous1, another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:34 pm
12 people like this

Never report to school employees. Call a lawyer first and have representation. Staff can not be trusted with your privacy. There are outside advocacy groups. Victim assistance at Santa Clara county can get help.


Anonymous1
another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:41 pm
Anonymous1, another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:41 pm
11 people like this

408 280-2416. lACY legal help for youths up to 21 . They can call themselves for devices and get representation. Would love to see an article on experiences here. Many kids do not know their rights and they should . They should have representation because so many adults are complicit.


Anonymous1
another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:42 pm
Anonymous1, another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:42 pm
9 people like this

408 280-2416. lACY legal help for youths up to 21 . Advice not deviices


Nick
another community
on Feb 11, 2020 at 3:12 pm
Nick, another community
on Feb 11, 2020 at 3:12 pm
3 people like this

I attended Paly back in the day. Between Stanford and Paly, what the hell is going on in Palo Alto?


Anonymous1
another community
on Feb 16, 2020 at 5:45 am
Anonymous1, another community
on Feb 16, 2020 at 5:45 am
3 people like this

At paly, the staff has no cohesiveness. Teachers are autonomous by subject area and each other. The leadership has no physical presence and no idea what goes on in each classroom because their model is to sit in an office and write down what staff says they are doing without ever looking. Parents are ignored and if they speak up their kids suffer retaliation. The admin does not know their students or have an interest in individuals. The campus is open and the admin still has never figured out how to take roll for safety drills and allows kids with Preps to walk off campus when alarms are sounded. This long standing climate makes it easier for anonymity first and also fear of no support when reporting. Thinking the best of and assuming they are not doing anything is easy, but also sometimes not really good for the kids that need supervision.


parent
Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2020 at 9:08 pm
parent, Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2020 at 9:08 pm
1 person likes this

"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."

Regarding the above 2 statements from the article: It is obvious that PAUSD/Paly administrators DO NOT WANT the students to know how to report sexual harassment. They don't want a paper trail of how often it occurs. They don't want to investigate or decide what to do in each case. Keep those blinders on!


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