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Survivors Speak Out: District and community respond to sexual assault discussion


When several survivors who were allegedly sexually assaulted by a Paly alumnus came forward to tell their story over social media in late January, a widespread discussion about sexual misconduct ensued, with several more victims of assault and harassment prompted to share their own experiences.

Superintendent Don Austin responded to these claims later that week on Jan. 27 with a Schoology message and email to PAUSD families, acknowledging student and community outcry.

“The District is aware of reports and concerns related to sexual violence involving current and former students that have been posted on social media,” Austin stated in his message. “While the social media posts are recent, we understand the incidents referenced in these posts relate to the 2019/2020 school year.”

Austin stated that he assures students and families that PAUSD takes all reports seriously. Near the end of his message, Austin addresses an alarming statistic that many students were sharing on social media, making sure to clarify that most of the reports received were sexual harassment and not assault.

“We are aware of public statements that the District received 50 reports of sexual assault in 2020,” Austin stated. “In fact, in the 2019/2020 school year, the District received over 50 reports of sexual harassment in which 5 were reports of sexual assault or misconduct.”

Several students are criticizing Austin for the implications of this part of his statement, saying it trivializes and diminishes sexual harassment reports. One sexual assault victim who asked to remain anonymous said Austin’s message “was like a slap in the face.”

“It seems like he truly doesn’t understand the impact of sexual assault on survivors, and worse, tried to undermine the number of cases reported by stating that the majority were only sexual harassment, as if that’s any better,” they said.

In an interview with The Campanile, Austin said that administration is welcoming victims who would like to have their case investigated, even if they had already reviewed the case.

“If (a victim) had not brought something forward, had brought partial information, or has had a change of their account, we will reinterview (them),” Austin said.

Among the victims sharing their stories over social media, many of their peers reposted messages showing their support.

But one survivor, who requested to remain nameless, said when the Paly community started to speak out on the issue, they didn’t realize how much trauma it resurfaced for survivors.

“One thing that no one was really talking about when all the uproar on social media came is like no one realized how triggering things people were posting can be for someone,” the survivor said. “Everyone’s posting (things) like, ‘If you’re a survivor, share your story,’ and it’s like, no, you don’t have to –– it’s okay if you’re not ready.”

Junior Sophia Cummings said she appreciated the overall impact it had on the community.

“I think all of the posting on social media really helped bring a huge issue to light,” Cummings said. “In terms of how people have reacted around me … just more people are just checking up on one another and everything.”

Moving forward, Paly principal Brent Kline said he believes the discussion surrounding sexual assault should have no finite end.

“What we’re experiencing now is a reminder to me that things can’t rest,” Kline said. “We need to be constantly reengaging in conversations about what healthy relationships look like. And I think, maybe, we had gotten comfortable.”

More information and recounts of survivors’ experiences will be released as they become available.

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