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

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

In order for all area residents to have important local information on the coronavirus health emergency, Palo Alto Online has lifted its pay meter and is providing unlimited access to its website. We need your support to continue our important work. Please join your neighbors and become a subscribing member today.
Palo Alto High School senior Katherine Buecheler, second from right, talks with fellow students at a meeting of Responsive Inclusive Safe Environment, a new student group focused on education related to sexual violence. Photo by Sammy Dallal.

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.

---

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

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?

Comments

22 people like this
Posted by Scotty
a resident of Green Acres
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:18 am

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


29 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 7, 2020 at 9:49 am

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!


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

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.


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

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.


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

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.


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

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.


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

@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.


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

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.


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

> 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!


13 people like this
Posted by R2
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 7, 2020 at 8:16 pm

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


5 people like this
Posted by Anonymous1
a resident of another community
on Feb 8, 2020 at 8:17 am

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


13 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Feb 8, 2020 at 8:25 am

@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.


31 people like this
Posted by Survivor
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 8, 2020 at 11:44 am

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!


12 people like this
Posted by Anonymous1
a resident of another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:34 pm

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.


11 people like this
Posted by Anonymous1
a resident of another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:41 pm

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.


9 people like this
Posted by Anonymous1
a resident of another community
on Feb 9, 2020 at 12:42 pm

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


3 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Feb 11, 2020 at 3:12 pm

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


3 people like this
Posted by Anonymous1
a resident of another community
on Feb 16, 2020 at 5:45 am

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.


1 person likes this
Posted by parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 14, 2020 at 9:08 pm

"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!


Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.

Email:


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields


Stay up to date on local coronavirus coverage with our daily news digest email.

Drive-thru farmers markets? The Peninsula's food industry pivots to the new normal.
By Elena Kadvany | 8 comments | 5,940 views

Coronavirus: Plan ahead now for a big outbreak
By Diana Diamond | 22 comments | 4,727 views

The first few seconds after awakening; before I remember the virus
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,967 views

How COVID-19 Affects Communities
By Jessica Zang | 19 comments | 1,640 views

Can you Stay Healthy without Making More Trash?
By Sherry Listgarten | 2 comments | 1,312 views

 

DEADLINE EXTENDED

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details