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District offers action plan after assault survey

The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD)plans to work toward preventing sexual assault after receiving the results of a survey given to students, staff and parents of the District at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to the Office of Civil Rights.

The District released  its solutions in three sections: for students, staff and parents. According to the survey, the District plans to schedule training sessions during advisory or SEL at Henry M. Gunn High School about sexual harassment with an emphasis on denormalizing it within the district.

According to the survey given in spring 2017 taken by 2,549 high school students, 1,981 parents and 742 staff members, 17.5 percent of the students who have witnessed sexual harassment, 15 percent have reported the harassment. Of the 10 percent of students who have experienced sexual harassment, only 15 percent of the victims reported it to an adult at either Gunn or Paly campuses.

PAUSD’s Director of Research Evaluation Christopher Kolar has been working with student groups, such as Associated Student Body (ASB), at both Gunn and Paly to determine the reason for the problem of students feeling discouraged to come forward about their experiences with sexual assault.

“We’ve never really laid out exactly what happens after [assault is reported]. And I think that one of the things that discourages people is that they don’t really know what’s going to happen when they step up and say something. So we’ve been talking about trying to make very clear, the entire process; not just to come forward and who you should report it to, but what we should expect to happen afterwards.”

Christopher Kolar

For the staff, the District plans to introduce annual sexual harassment training.

Furthermore, the District intends to hold community-wide training on sexual harassment and emphasize the need for a reporting process that reduces fear of repercussions.

The District would like to work on how they can improve sexual assault prevention by working directly with ASB on what would be the most helpful for the District to investigate, according to Kolar.

“We would like to [start] coming by, talking [with ASB],” Kolar said. “Maybe even asking the ASB, ‘What’s something that you would like us to do a data dive on, together. So we’re looking for opportunities to do that as part of a continuing conversation. We don’t know what that looks like yet because we’re going to make is up as we go along in conjunction with the ASB.”

Another way the District is looking to increase reporting rates for those who have witnessed and experienced sexual harassment is to emphasize the denormalization of sexual assault.

“What was interesting is that whole category called normalization, which is ‘Oh, it’s just part of a culture. It’s boys being boys, the cost of being an adolescent,’” Kolar said. “What we’re beginning to see now is in the larger culture, people saying, ‘No, that’s not acceptable.’”

According to the survey, normalization is the main reason students who have experienced or witnessed sexual assault do not report it.

“[Normalizing assault] minimizes the experience of the person who is gone through it,” Kolar said. “So they think, ‘Oh, well, I’m making a big deal out of something that is just normal.’”

Christopher Kolar

Kolar also said cultural influences such as the #MeToo movement, which works to encourage victims of sexual assault to come forward and report their abusers, has affected the culture in the District.

“One of the really interesting things about timing is when you look at something like #MeToo,” Kolar said. “All of a sudden, I think that there is a larger cultural shift in terms of being open about it.”

After receiving the results of the OCR survey, the District plans to continue discussing and improving its policies on sexual assault with the hopes of improving safety for students.

Kolar said, “It’s a process that’s meant to serve the protection of all the students, and if they’re not taking advantage of it because they don’t feel like it’s in their best interest, then we really want to know why and try to remedy that.”

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