“Most societies don’t talk about rape,” write former Verde editors-in-chiefs Ana Carano, Sharon Tseng and Evelyn Wang. “We consider it a taboo, conditioning victims to feel ashamed about speaking out and forcing them to deal with the aftermath in silence.”
On April 9, Verde — Palo Alto High School’s feature magazine — printed a series of six articles centered around a so-called “rape culture” within the school. After publishing the issue, Paly became the center of both local and national news coverage and sparked a holistic conversation within the community. The issue’s cover story, “You can’t tell me I wasn’t raped,” written by Lisie Sabbag (‘13), created a palpable buzz.
According to Marshall University Women’s Center, rape culture is defined as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture [and it] is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
Verde described an environment in which rape was considered excusable and the victim is often blamed for their involvement.
“Everyone was making me feel like just a lying slut who got herself in this situation,” [Tina, an anonymous Paly student and victim of rape] said. “Even though I knew that’s not what happened, that’s how people were making me feel.”
Names like “attention whore,” “liar,” “drunk” and “slut” were thrown around in the gossip that surrounded her as she walked across the quad at school. Tina had a bit of a reputation, and the classic “slut-shaming” came into full effect as soon as people learned she had been drunk that night.
Verde had conducted an online survey of 250 Paly students and found that around 25 percent believed that if a woman willingly gets drunk and then gets raped, she is at fault. In addition, 57.5 percent said they agree that certain females are “more likely to be raped due to their promiscuous behavior.”
These statistics, along with the narratives of Tina and Amy, two anonymous Paly students and survivors of sexual assault, raised a serious question for the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD): are our students safe?
“I started with one source, a survivor of rape, and by the end of it I had almost 10 — that was a huge surprise to me,” Sabbag told the Palo Alto Weekly in April 2013. “There were people that just heard I was writing the story and wanted to talk to me, and I’m sure there are many others out there.”
The California Student Free Expression Law of 1977 (California Education Code Section 48907) protects the First Amendment rights to free speech of student journalists attending California public schools, along with other added protections against censorship.
A school’s administration can only censor stories “if they are obscene, libelous, slanderous, or likely to incite others to commit illegal or disruptive acts.” Without such provisions, even the thought of writing such a controversial article may never have surfaced.
Verde’s student journalists took every precaution while crafting such a provocative and sensitive piece. Writers sought the support of different journalistic institutions, including the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism, the Student Press Law Center, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma and the Poynter Institute.
Former Paly principal Phil Winston applauded the work of the journalists at the time, believing that their efforts positively contributed to the school community and opened up the door to future discussion and conversation of more sensitive, but prevalent, issues.
“The article is well balanced, detailed and full of resources for people,” Winston said, according to the Palo Alto Weekly. “The article also highlights that serious issues are present in all communities.”
The publication of the articles was relevant in sparking a conversation among the school community.
“According to the allegations made even before the article came out, there was iffy behavior going on and I think that it’s incredible that students writing for a school publication have the ability to impact us [students], our school and entire community the way this article has,” Hammer said. “It’s a great demonstration of the potential impact we, as students, can have.”
Unfortunately, this student impact translated into a major investigation and caused unforeseen repercussions that have shaken up the district and the Palo Alto community ever since.
School Board Meeting
Approximately one month after Verde published their articles pertaining to rape culture, the PAUSD Board of Education held a meeting on May 7, 2013, where Professor Michele Dauber condemned the school’s response, or lack thereof, to the incidences involving rape within the Paly student community. Dauber — a Stanford Law School professor and co-chair of the school’s Board on Judicial Affairs — helped the university craft a new Alternative Review Process for handling incidences of rape and sexual assault on campus. She brought to attention of the School Board meeting “that the Palo Alto High School Verde article about ‘rape culture’ had civil rights implications for creating a hostile environment under Title IX,” according to the School Board meeting minutes.
Dauber entered the meeting on May 7 envisioning that the district officials had already opened an investigation, especially considering the Verde articles had been published nearly a month prior to the meeting. In reality, no such actions had taken place.
“It was alarming to see that no one at the senior district staff level even seemed aware of the district’s obligations under Title IX,” Dauber said. “I hoped that the district would take that seriously and move not just to investigation it thoroughly, but to abate and address it properly and appropriately, as required by law.”
According to PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly, the district took a more personable approach. Initially, the district was not aware of the identities of Tina and Amy, whom the cover story centered around, thus hindering the district from taking any initiative. Once learning of the students’ identities, the district worked with them, ensuring the overall safety and well-being of all involved.
“We worked effectively with the student, we were [helpful], caring, supportive and helped them through a difficult time,” Skelly said.
OCR/Title IX Investigation
In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released what is known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, a policy statement outlining a school’s role in the case of sexual assault on or off campus, released in an effort to “explain that the requirements of Title IX cover sexual violence and to remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX,” according to the OCR and U.S. Department of Education. In the “Dear Colleague” letter, the OCR states that a school’s obligations include “[taking] immediate and appropriate action to investigate what occurred,” and after deeming sexual violence to have taken place, to “take prompt and effective steps to end the sexual violence, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.”
Dauber asked that the district start an investigation, claiming PAUSD is “legally obligated to conduct [an] investigation and to ensure that the victim was free from retaliation and additional harassment,” according to the Palo Alto Weekly.
“Once sexual harassment has been found to occur, the district has an obligation to intervene effectively to stop the harassment, prevent its recurrence and remedy the effects on any victims,” Dauber said. “The school is also obligated to remedy any systemic hostile environment.”
Skelly replied to Dauber stating that the district has “a plan on this and are moving forward.”
“My initial reaction to this response was that I was disappointed that no Title IX investigation had taken place to that point in time,” Dauber said. “However, I was encouraged the district might move forward and follow the law at that point.”
Skelly and the district contacted OCR asking for advice on how to proceed. Rather than isolating themselves from the government agency, the district sought out advice, only to discover that all of the suggestions that OCR provided had already been carried out by PAUSD.
“We consulted with the OCR about how to handle [the] situation, and they told us the recommendation they had and the things that they suggested were things that we had already done,” Skelly said.
On June 3, 2013, the OCR sent a letter to Superintendent Skelly stating that it had “received information that (Paly) has not provided a prompt and equitable response to notice of peer sexual harassment, including peer harassment related to sexual assault.” This letter marked the beginning of an ongoing investigation within PAUSD, one that is still currently in progress.
Although this is not the first incidence of the OCR investigating the district, it is the first time that an investigation has been perpetuated by the federal agency itself, as opposed to an individual student or family within the district. Skelly revealed to The Campanile that he is unclear as to what instigated the investigation. There is no clear connection, known to Skelly in the very least, between the district seeking out the advice of the OCR and the letter sent out on June 3, sparking the beginning of the agency’s investigation.
“What I do not know, and what I have not been able to find out, is why the office for Civil Rights chose to launch an investigation of our district,” Skelly said. “They say it’s based on the article in Verde, but there are a whole host of schools in this country, all over the place [with similar issues]… yet Palo Alto was chosen for an investigation for peer harassment.”
Principal Kim Diorio agrees with Skelly’s sentiment. After being debriefed by the PAUSD attorney, Diorio revealed that the circumstances surrounding the current investigation are unprecedented.
In the past, complaints stem from a student or Paly parent and are sent to the OCR, sparking an investigation.
“This is a highly unusual case, because the agency usually starts a case because an individual has a complaint,” Diorio said. “In this situation, nobody from the school had a complaint, but OCR picked up on the story and said they’re going to investigate.”
The OCR investigation is looking on a much broader scale into the “district’s compliance with Title IX,” and while never explicitly stating the cause of the investigation as the rape culture article published by Verde, the letter sent to Skelly did state the intent as an examination of “whether the district provides students at Palo Alto High School with a nondiscriminatory educational environment free of sexual harassment, and whether it responds properly and effectively to complaints or other notice of sexual harassment of students.”
The letter sent from the OCR to the district was initially kept from the public, and only after the Palo Alto Weekly sent in a request to the agency itself was the content of the letter released for public viewing.
After learning that the agency granted the request of the Weekly, Skelly sent an email to the newspaper on July 9, 2013, asking that the content of the letter remain unpublished. He claimed withholding the letter was an action taken to protect the identity and privacy of a single student, writing that the student could experience harm in her “progress in her educational program that may come from public discussion,” according to the email cited in a Weekly article. The letter submitted to PAUSD by the OCR does not contain any specific mention of any individual, and clarifies that “an investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to [the district’s] merits.”
Skelly, however, saw severe ramifications in publishing the OCR letter sent to the district, fearing that publicizing the identity of Tina or Amy would only do more harm.
“I believe, and continue to believe, that the identity of that student was well-known and the facts around it were well-known by the people in the Palo Alto community,” Skelly explained. “More publicity around that case was not in the interest of that person. That was why I asked the Weekly not to publish that, and they chose to publish it.”
In contrast, Wang, the former editor-in-chief of Verde Magazine who worked on the rape culture articles, learned from conversing with a rape survivor at Amherst University that students and student survivors do not need to be involved in any Title IX investigations. Thus, even if the identities of Tina and Amy were to be publicized, it would have no implications on the ongoing OCR investigation. Rather, she believes that an investigation of such a matter will only benefit the school culture overall.
“I think more people should better understand what a Title IX investigation is and how it works,” Wang said. “A Title IX investigation looks at how a school handles sexual harassment cases and whether their methods are in compliance with Title IX. I support any steps that will improve our society and institutions’ treatment of sexual harassment, violence and assault.”
After the district received the letter from the OCR, Superintendent Skelly sent a letter to the agency on June 14, 2013, entitled “Request for Reconsideration of Opening an Investigation,” eleven days after OCR started the case and well before the Palo Alto public received word of the opened investigation. Skelly chose not to comment on the letter or its content, which was not disclosed to the public.
The OCR denied Skelly’s request, and the investigation proceeded as planned. Diorio, who assumed her position in August, underwent an extensive process of sexual harassment prevention training along with the rest of the Paly staff as a result of the opened investigation.
“In August, when we came back to school, we trained the staff and talked about it at our first staff meeting,” Diorio said. “We did the disabilities-based harassment training, and we talked about sexual harassment training.”
Superintendent Skelly then sent another letter to the Office of Civil Rights with a subject line of “Request for Closure of Investigation,” in September 2013. Again, his request was denied, but the OCR experienced a sudden stop in all investigative progress due to the 16-day government shutdown that began on Oct. 1, 2013. From that point forward, no further actions took place until January 2014, where the investigation was reopened and officials started obtaining evidence from the district.
The process of a full-length OCR investigation is long. After careful examination and evaluation, if the agency comes to the conclusion that the cause of the investigation was warranted, “the recipient will negotiate and sign a written resolution agreement that describes the specific remedial actions that the recipient will undertake to address the area(s) of noncompliance identified by OCR,” according to the OCR website. Failure to comply and negotiate some form of resolution results in more serious responses and measures taken by the OCR, including cutting federal financial assistance and referring the school district in question to the Department of Justice.
According to Diorio, this investigation involves the agency obtaining files and records, including the disciplinary files logged by Paly administrators over the past three years, with a specific focus on instances of sexual harassment or bullying.
The agency created a list of nine Paly staff members that they wished to interview, and also intended to talk to various student leadership groups across campus. A representative from the OCR plans to make a campus visit sometime in May 2014, which brings into question another facet of Paly culture that has experienced a dramatic shift since the publishing of the Verde article.
On Aug. 15, 2013, two seniors celebrated the first day of the school year by brazenly streaking across the Quad. Their actions renewed the debate over the sexual safety of students of campus, one that had quieted — at least for a little bit — during the summer months.
On her first day on the job, Diorio sent out an email to the Paly community condemning the incident and making her views clear on the tradition.
“We need to work together to end this unsafe and educationally disruptive ‘tradition,’” Diorio wrote. “My top priority is ensuring the physical and emotional safety of every student and adult on our campus.”
Within hours, a fierce dialogue surfaced on Palo Alto Online’s Town Square forum, mainly between anonymous parents of Paly students using fictitious usernames.
“The principal has every right to be panicked,” Concerned Parent wrote. “This type of activity leads to a culture of rape and misogyny already prevalent at Paly according to a well-researched student article.”
It was clear that Verde’s issue was still fresh in the minds of many community members.
Some, however, refuted the link between streaking and rape culture. In the eyes of one Paly alumnus, those “who confuse streaking with ‘rape culture’ are doing more harm than good.”
“Equating streaking to a ‘rape culture’ is such a stretch,” Crescent Park Dad wrote. “Does anyone seriously believe the streaking students said to themselves, ‘Let’s promote the rape culture, it’s our way?’”
Diorio — whose decisive stance on the first day streaking incident set herself apart from the previous administration, following the resignation of Winston on June 13, 2013 — recognizes that the vast amount of students who partake in the former tradition adds another layer to the sexual harassment investigation associated with Paly.
“I would suspect that we’re one of the only high schools in the country that has the quantity of streakers that we have had, and because that’s so highly unusual, that’s another variable that adds into this equation,” Diorio said.
Many argue that streaking is entirely unrelated to the OCR investigation. However, as more details and definitions are brought into the light, the separation between streaking and the rape culture begin to grow more and more hazy.
The legal definition of sexual harassment involves “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.” With such a definition, Diorio believes one can argue a linkage between streaking and sexual assault.
“Whether there’s a direct correlation [between streaking and sexual assault], you can make the case both ways,” Diorio said. “Certainly there were enough people offended by the streaking behavior that it’s had an impact on the climate of our school.”
In January 2014, Diorio hired economics teacher Eric Bloom to serve as a Teacher on Special Assignment, with his assignment being to improve school climate.
One aspect of improving school climate, directed to him by Diorio, is helping to put an end to senior streaking — a long-time tradition that has been embedded at Paly for decades.
“[My senior students feel that streaking is] not rebellion,” Bloom said. “[They think], ‘this is part of my rite of passage as being a Paly senior. I should get the right to run naked across the Quad.’
“Is that rape culture? Probably not,” Bloom continues. “Does that mean that that’s a rape culture? Does that mean that that contributes to the idea that I can do whatever I want and you just have to deal with it? No, and a little yes.
“The seed is ‘I get to do whatever I want to do regardless of how it impacts others,” Bloom said. “Taking that and connecting it to rape culture is a big jump. But it’s a step along the way.”
Beyond just the alleged harm and hostile work environment that streaking creates, the district recognizes that considering the OCR’s intense scrutiny of anything related to sexual harassment on campus, the school has no choice but to follow and persecute students to the full extent of the law.
The OCR is making inquires and asking questions, according to Diorio, ensuring that the school makes a serious effort to educate kids of the repercussions and help them understand that streaking is, in fact, a violation of the law.
“As the principal, I no longer have a choice as to how we’re going to handle streaking,” Diorio said. “I would not be upholding the law and providing an emotionally and physically safe environment for students and for teachers. Right now, we need to put an end to this tradition.”
Diorio and the rest of the administration have taken serious measures to make sure students are fully aware of the punishments for streaking.
Paly is enforcing a policy that states that on the first streaking offense, perpetrators will receive a two-day suspension and a citation or arrest, dependent on the age of the streaker. A second offense will result in a five-day suspension, along with another citation or arrest and a redaction of senior privileges.
Never has Paly gone so far as to press charges for teenage streaking, but considering the current environment and position the school is under in regards to the investigation, Diorio has little choice.
“We’d have to press charges, given the nature of this investigation,” Diorio said. “[Streakers] can’t violate [people’s rights] to a safe workplace or educational setting.”
It has been approximately a year since the rape culture article series first hit the Paly community, causing both a controversy and conversation unparalleled in years of Paly journalism. Many disagree on the mistakes of the articles; any writing about a sensitive subject matter is subjected to many opinions. However, few could have predicted the events that would play out following the aforementioned articles.
Rape culture, per definition, does not necessarily insinuate a culture where rape is prevalent; it encompasses several issues, but essentially boils down to an environment of hostility toward women, where sexual harassment is normalized and accepted. And, as proven by Verde staff, it appears to be a concept embedded within Paly culture.
Therefore, an investigation looking into a school that hosts a misogynistic and unequal environment is absolutely warranted. But pulling up every record, interviewing teachers and pressuring administrators to do more and more to rectify the situation only works to solve a singular problem within a larger issue.
Consider the case at nearby Saratoga High School. In 2012, a 15-year-old student committed suicide after being sexually assaulted and subsequently harassed by her peers as a result of the pictures of her being violated posted online. The case received equal, if not more, media attention, and yet PAUSD is the district subject to investigation. No evidence suggesting Saratoga High School is being investigated by a federal agency has been found by The Campanile and both OCR and Los Gatos-Saratoga Unified School District failed to comment.
Cases of teenage rape are not restricted to Paly. According to the Center for Disease Control, 29.9 percent of female rape victims were first raped between age 11-17. This number increases as students go on to higher education; one in four women will experience sexual assault by the time they graduate college. This is a national issue, as rape culture pertains to more than the students of Paly, just as there are more people and environments at fault than just administrators and Paly’s climate.
Skelly recognizes that this issue may apply to more schools than Paly, and any assistance provided by the OCR is welcome as far as PAUSD is concerned.
“We’re always interested in doing better,” Skelly said. “If the OCR can give us ideas on how to do our work better, we’re all ears.”
Some called Verde’s articles of rape “sensationalized” and the narratives as “isolated events” that don’t reflect the overall culture of the school. Paly is only one school dealing with the prevalent issue of rape culture. Examining school records in the hopes of creating a solution will only be an immediate fix for a small portion of those who experience the repercussions of rape culture.
This is an issue within high schools across the nation and should be treated as such. Though the OCR investigation may have good intentions, solving individual cases is not as effective as educating the upcoming generation and realizing this issue far surpasses the boundaries of 50 Embarcadero Road.