Anna was a 15-year-old Gunn High School student when her then-boyfriend sexually assaulted her in a campus bathroom.
She had never heard of Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law that protects students' right to an education free of harassment. She couldn't process what had happened to her, let alone answer the three male administrators who questioned her in the school office immediately afterward. She felt unsafe and alone, and as her mental health degraded, she attempted suicide.
This summer, Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, started an Instagram account devoted to sharing anonymous stories of Palo Alto students who have experienced sexual violence and harassment. The stories — of a girl who was raped while too drunk to consent, of another who reported a teacher for making inappropriate comments about her body, and of another who was asked "What kind of clothes were you wearing?" — are at once heartbreaking and comforting for Anna, who wishes sexual assault had been talked about more openly when she was at Gunn.
"I felt like I needed to make sure that people had a voice," said the 2020 Gunn graduate. "I think seeing that we're not alone was really important for me."
Anna is part of a new wave of local young Title IX activists who during the pandemic have used social media and socially distanced protests to press for reform and raise awareness about youth sexual violence in Palo Alto. The Instagram page Anna created, metoopaloalto, was inspired by one started by Los Gatos High School students this summer. She watched as one student's disclosure of a rape on Instagram prompted dozens of students to come forward with their own experiences with sexual violence. The Los Gatos Instagram account is now as much a resource page as it is a platform for survivors to feel heard and seen.
In May, Gunn senior Rachel Sun formed a student club dedicated to creating policies to protect survivors of sexual harassment and violence. She runs Instagram and Facebook pages where students discuss local and federal Title IX policies and changes they'd like to see their schools make.
Sun was first moved to advocacy by outrage at President Donald Trump administration's new Title IX regulations, which took effect this summer and were widely criticized by survivor advocates as tipping the balance toward those accused of sexual assault.
"I started just posting on social media, 'Is there anything that can be done?' I was waiting for someone else to be like, 'I already do this advocacy thing so you can stop now.' But then no one did that so I just had to keep going," Sun said.
Sun's club focused this fall on lobbying the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to review local K-12 public and private schools, community colleges and universities' compliance with Title IX and other laws related to sexual harassment and violence. Dozens of local high school and Stanford University students and advocates gave more than two hours of public testimony at a September Board of Supervisors meeting, some describing their own assaults and frustration with the Title IX process at their schools. The YWCA of Silicon Valley, Next Door Solutions, Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), Maitri, Law Foundation, Community Solutions and the Asian Law Alliance wrote a joint letter urging passage of the countywide review, which they said would for the first time "make it possible to identify gaps in policies that can adversely impact the right to have an education free from harassment and violence."
The local students' representative on the county board, Supervisor Joe Simitian, asked county staff to conduct outreach and include input from stakeholders at the local, state and federal level rather than approve the review as presented. Frustrated by the delay, Sun and other students organized a protest, marching from Duveneck Elementary School to Simitian's home. They wore all black and masks with the word "listen" and sat cross-legged in the street in silent protest.
"It felt really empowering to go to Simitian's house and demand that he actually listen to us," Sun said.
The next month, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the review, which is expected to take up to a year and a half to complete. At Simitian's request, they allocated $1 million — double the proposed funding — for the audit.
"The moment an academic institution fails to comply with state and federal sex discrimination laws and laws, rules, and regulations addressing sexual and intimate partner violence and stalking — be it through poorly crafted policies or failure to enforce policies, we have failed our learners," a staff report on the county review states. "Students have the right to an education free from harassment and/or violence and academic institutions bear the responsibility of fostering such an environment through comprehensive policies and just enforcement."
Palo Alto Unified for years struggled with Title IX compliance and culture, particularly at the high schools. In 2013, Palo High School's Verde Magazine's often-cited "rape culture" article shook the school community and prompted a yearslong federal Office of Civil Rights investigation that ultimately found the district violated both federal law and its own policies and procedures in numerous cases. This and other developments eventually led to the hiring of the district's first-ever full-time Title IX coordinator, new consent education, a district task force focused on ending sexual assault and an unprecedented number of reports of sexual violence, gender and racial discrimination and other forms of harassment.
Sun said she feels lucky to be in a district with a more intense focus on Title IX in comparison to other local schools.
"But I think also the bar is very low. To say my district is following the law so we're doing great is kind of disappointing," she said. "That being said, I think Palo Alto does make efforts to try and consistently improve. I'm glad they are receptive to that."
Anna said she hopes school and district administrators see the metoopaloalto account and reflect on how their handling of a Title IX report can impact a student's mental health.
"I want them to understand that they have a significant role in how a victim processes what happens to them," she said.
Sun said many students are still unaware of their rights under Title IX and what to do if they're sexually assaulted or harassed. With the schools closed, she's also concerned that students are less likely to tell a trusted teacher if they're assaulted. She wants the district to post Title IX resources and policies in a clear, noticeable place on school websites.
As of early November, there have been 13 reports of sexual harassment and discrimination this school year, including two cases at Gunn and five at Paly, according to the district's Uniform Complaint Procedure (UCP) report.
Sun strongly believes that the district's consent education should be more nuanced and engaging — especially given not all students are fully on board with preventing sexual violence, she said.
"There are a lot of young women especially who are very interested in preventing rape culture from persisting and making sure that survivors feel safe at school. But there are also a lot of people who think that girls are being dramatic and that it's not really a big issue," Sun said. "People treat it as kind of a turn-off if you're interested in these things."
Kayla Stitt, a recent Palo Alto High School graduate who helps run the metoopaloalto Instagram, said it's not the norm among teenagers to talk about consent and sexual assault. That's why she and others feel so passionate about the account.
"Pages like this, which allow for people to share their stories, to see how common it is, will definitely allow for more conversations," she said.
On Dec. 8, the Palo Alto Unified school board is holding a Title IX "listening session" at the request of Trustee Ken Dauber. He said he wants the board and district to hear directly from students, including these activists, who have expressed concerns about Title IX in recent months.
"While the district has made great strides in Title IX compliance and supporting students who have experienced sexual harassment and assault, there's always room for improvement," Dauber said. "There's nothing more valuable than hearing from students about their experience."
Resources where survivors can get help:
• National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673) and 24/7 chat: hotline.rainn.org/online.
• Crisis Text Line: Text 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.
• PAUSD Title IX information: pausd.org/about-us/policies-procedures/title-ix-office.