Concern over the rising incidence of streaking on the Palo Alto High School campus reached an apparent boiling point among staff members last spring, when according to one source there were streakers of both sexes every school day in May involving over 100 students. Streakers even entered the library, which had been a place where students had taken refuge to avoid the naked seniors.
One day, during a lunch-time performance of an invited cultural musical group on the senior deck, student streakers got up on the deck and played on their instruments naked, the teacher said.
Principal Phil Winston's response to the increased streaking activity was seen by some teachers and staff as half-hearted and sending a mixed message, and played a significant role in complaints made against Winston to district officials.
"After much reflection and discussion with many colleagues I'd like to share my concerns with this leadership team about the spate of streaking that seems to have encroached on more and more of our time and space at the end of each successive school year in the past four years," according to an an email on June 4 by a staff member to Winston, administrators and all Instructional Supervisors.
Winston replied, just a week before submitting his resignation, "I agree. Next year will be different."
An unidentified staff member added, "Besides the issue of student safety, it's a sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen."
"From one week to two to now a whole month..from the quad to now the library we seem to have no where that is safe for students during their precious break periods," the author of the original email wrote.
"I use that word safe because that is the word many students used when they came up to me and (redacted) and asked where they could shelter during the streaking. The fact that students do not feel safe on the quad for almost an entire month is of great concern to me and I assume to all of you as well. Many senior students told me they have received very mixed messages about the school's stance on streaking," the email stated.
"In my view it is a student's right to privacy, to be safe at school that is being infringed upon by a minority of senior students who wish to indulge in what they assume is a harmless act of self expression."
The complainant who came forward with sexual harassment allegations against Winston considered the handling of the streaking problem to be emblematic of Winston's unprofessional conduct.
"Principal Winston has sent the message to the students that there are clearly little or no consequences. I've spoken with parents who also feel the same pressures not to speak up. Quite honestly, I'm tired of having to watch naked students everyday for an entire month, (redacted) and believe this situation has created a hostile work environment on our campus," the complainant wrote in his or her report to district officials.
Staff members told the Weekly that most teachers were reluctant to leave their classrooms during streaking season, at brunch and lunch time, for fear of encountering naked students.
One long-time Paly teacher told the Weekly of the relief on campus when on her first school day as principal last August, Kim Diorio suspended two students who decided to test her by streaking, prompting an email to parents.
Another teacher said that when Diorio spoke with such a clear voice, even the students who might normally be expected to defend streaking as a "tradition" did not react negatively. "We are so appreciative of this (new approach)," the teacher said.
Diorio also launched an initiative in January to address school climate issues and appointed history and social sciences teacher Eric Bloom to facilitate and lead the effort as a "teacher-on-special-assignment" (TOSA).
According to Bloom, his TOSA work so far has included planning for creation of a school climate committee, revising the Academic Honesty policy, preparing for Not in Our Schools Week, looking at how to improve comfort levels around reporting climate problems, and evaluating ways to obtain more data on climate issues, including possibly focus groups.
One important goal is for the process to include a large student participation component because "students impact culture the most," Bloom said. Principals also have a major role and ultimate responsibility, he said, as "captains of the ship."
One change needed is more awareness and communication on campus and within the community about climate issues, Bloom said.
"Like our students, we are for the most part good, but we also make mistakes." When that happens, he said, "we deal with it."
"We need to learn and heal as a result of the people who were willing to speak up," he said.
Paly may be experiencing a "band-aid moment" now, but Bloom expects positive things to come out of difficulties. "It's not about pointing fingers," Bloom said. "It's a truth and reconciliation moment" and an opportunity to "take ownership and responsibility, and build the place we want."
Bloom said that "Paly is full of people doing the right thing" and while there's plenty to work on, there's also lots to celebrate and good momentum for positive changes moving forward.
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