Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - May 23, 2014

Women tell of high school partners who harassed, assaulted them

Sarah's story

Sarah Van Zanten, a former Gunn High School student and now 25, has been speaking to audiences across the nation for about nine years on the topic of teen dating violence and the importance of helping teens build healthy relationships. Her speaking engagements have included colleges, high schools, medical schools and Girl Scout troops. She has appeared on the Today Show, was featured in People Magazine and has her own blog on the topic (sarahvanzanten.wordpress.com).

Locally, Sarah speaks annually at Hillview Middle School, has addressed a group of teen boys at Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall and returned to Gunn to speak to a P.E. class a few years ago, she told the Weekly.

Sarah tries to reach as many teens and adult supporters as she can through speeches, posting her own story on key websites and other related volunteer work.

Sarah's story began at Gunn, in 2005, at the age of 15 when she began going out with a fellow student and popular football player.

"I thought I had it all," she writes. She never dreamed she might become a dating-violence statistic.

Still there were warning signs she didn't recognize at first: Her boyfriend called and texted constantly, asking where she was and with whom. He put down her friends and was resentful of social time she spent with others. He had a temper and drank too much. He would do things to hurt her feelings and then bring her flowers to make up.

Sarah became isolated and unsure what to do, in part because his behaviors were always "cloaked in the disguise of love and affection and at that age I had no reason to know that they were not OK," Sarah describes on the Safe at Schools website.

Sarah told the Weekly that the first violent incident happened at school. Her boyfriend was drunk and out of control; during a break, Sarah hid from him near her next class. He found her, threw her against the lockers, shook her and warned her never to try to hide from him again. She ran crying to the classroom. He pursued her and slammed her up against the classroom door before she escaped into the classroom.

According to Sarah, the teacher appeared not to notice the commotion. Her crying continued through the class. No one said anything to her. After class, she found a trusted teacher, told the teacher what had happened and then went to the administration. The school suspended the boy for two days for being drunk, Sarah told the Weekly, but there was no punishment for the assault.

This left her very confused, she said. She couldn't understand why the school officials acted as if he hadn't done anything wrong with respect to her.

In retrospect, her parents should have been called, she said. No counseling or other resources were offered.

Sarah wrote on the Safe at Schools website: "I needed the guidance of my teachers and school staff to help me deal with the scary situation I was incapable of handling. The school only suspended him for two days for being drunk despite me asking for help and the school knowing that he had been physically violent toward me on campus. I felt scared, confused, and betrayed.

"It still shocks me that even though students saw the assault and my teacher saw the aftermath, when I actively sought help from my school I was turned away. If a boy came to school drunk and fought in the hall with a peer, the school would have punished him for the drinking and the violence. I don't know why they did not handle my case in the same way.

"If the school had handled my situation appropriately, I probably would have sought help and spoken with my parents. Maybe this would have given me the knowledge and strength I needed to leave the relationship."

Sarah thinks it would have helped her situation if the school had had policies and protocols in place to address dating abuse, measures she and others advocate on the Safe at Schools website.

Though Sarah considered breaking up after this school incident and ignored the boy for a time, she finally relented in response to the boy's flowers, apologies and pleas for forgiveness. She felt ashamed and socially isolated and didn't think anyone else would understand or support her.

"He was my life," she said. She decided to give him another chance.

Soon after, Sarah was at a weekend party where the boy was drunk, lost his temper and kicked her so hard that she was knocked unconscious for six hours. No one at the party helped her, Sarah thinks because they were afraid of getting in trouble for under-age drinking. When Sarah woke up, she had a severe concussion and two bruised ribs.

She told her parents what happened; they called the police. The boy was sent to Juvenile Hall. Sarah obtained a restraining order for a radius of 300 yards. Upon his release, the boy began attending Palo Alto High School instead of Gunn, which the district required him to do, Sarah told the Weekly.

Meanwhile, the Monday morning after the party, when Sarah returned to Gunn, she found herself the target of vicious rumors. Peers were upset at her for reporting the boy to the police. She had gone too far, they said.

Sarah's house was egged repeatedly. The final straw was when Sarah was physically threatened by another student. Sarah left Gunn that day and didn't return. She and her mother made arrangements with administrators to switch to a private school. Sarah said the school officials were sympathetic and supportive but really couldn't do anything at that point to make Gunn safe for her.

In reflecting on her experience, Sarah decided that she wants to learn more about relationship abuse, domestic violence and available support networks. She came to realize what a serious problem it is, affecting many teens. Teens often tend to normalize violence and abuse in their young relationships, she said. She wanted to change that.

In telling her story, she feels she is making a difference and inspiring teens to recognize and avoid dating abuse and the threat of violence that comes with it. She is helping them understand what a healthy relationship looks like and how to build one.

Diana's story

A Gunn 2010 graduate, Diana (not her real name) was the victim of harassment and physical assault on campus by her former romantic partner, a fellow Gunn student.

The problems began after their break up. Her partner spread damaging rumors, called Diana hurtful names and encouraged mutual friends to ostracize her. Over a period of months, Diana and two friends who stuck by her were increasingly picked on by the larger friend group.

"It was an intensive barrage," Diana said.

She began to feel increasingly afraid physically for herself and her two friends. She was also afraid to tell any adult, believing physical harm might come to her if she did. One of her former partner's favorite expressions was "snitches get stitches."

Diana eventually grew desperate enough to approach a school administrator. His response was to ask one of the security staff to keep an eye out for her and her friends. The harassment continued as before.

Diana and her two friends decided to try again and approached another administrator. They asked him to tell the harassing students to stay away from them.

"We wanted protection," she said.

The administrator did not appear to take their complaints seriously, Diana said, and told them they should try to avoid the other students, and "step away" from any harassing conduct.

"This was drama occurring between people of color," Diana said. He expected them to handle it among themselves, she said.

The harassment continued. A few weeks later, walking to class, Diana was assaulted from behind by her former partner, who pushed her, hit her and tore her clothes, exposing her private parts and causing her to bleed from the nose and chest. This assault was videotaped by students who watched with their phones held out. Teachers arrived to stop the attack, and an administrator escorted Diana to the office.

The police were called. According to Diana, the attacking student was arrested and also suspended for five days by the school.

An administrator asked Diana not to come to school for a few days to allow her to recover.

"We don't want people to talk, to put you in that situation," Diana recounted the administrator telling her.

"I didn't want to come to school; I was very embarrassed," Diana said. She heard reports from other students that photos and videos taken of the assault were being shown around at school. "Not my private parts, just the fight part."

When Diana returned to classes, she said there was no follow up from the school to see how she was doing, and no counseling was offered. After that, "I became a loner and wanted high school to be over," she said.

She was absent much of the rest of the school year, calling in her own excuses, due to fears of her former partner (who still attended Gunn), embarrassment and a serious depression that developed after the attack.

"School was not a welcoming place for me. I didn't want to be in that space. I tried hard to avoid it," she said.

After graduation, Diana became involved romantically with another abusive partner who hurt her physically; this time the police department offered her counseling services.

"That helped and taught me a lot," she said.

Since then, Diana has attended community college, working part-time to help with expenses.

"College has been the best thing ever," she said. She has done well academically and is pursuing a career in law enforcement, something she has always wanted to do.

Her high school years remain a bad memory.

"I asked for help, and no one came to my aid," she said.

— Terri Lobdell

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