Under the surface of the Palo Alto Unified School District’s high-class education and suburban bubble lies a sinister reality. In 2020 alone, PAUSD received 50 reports of sexual harassment—not including the incidents that were not reported, which have historically made up a majority of cases. Many survivors have since come forward with their stories, a daunting experience given the skepticism and scrutiny many have faced in the aftermath. Yet despite numerous allegations—in one case, over 10 people coming forward against the same offender—many of the accused have yet to be questioned, let alone face repercussions for their heinous actions. This weekend, the high school community rallied together on social media, showing support for those who were courageous enough to tell their stories. Despite this inspirational show of unity, online solidarity is simply not enough. To truly combat the crippling effects of rape culture in our community, the system itself must change. And while there is no clear path forward, it’s time we put more energy into supporting victims and holding the perpetrators accountable. How can we boast of the education or opportunities in Palo Alto when we have failed to protect the victims of sexual assault in our very own high schools?
We must begin by believing survivors and start with the assumption that they are telling the truth. This doesn’t mean that we must take every accusation as fact. It means becoming a community where survivors are given a chance to speak out, to be heard, and to be treated with respect. When a person is brave and strong enough to reveal their stories to the world in order to seek justice for themselves and against their assaulter, we cannot simply look away, effectively turning our backs on those who need support. We cannot refuse to acknowledge the problem, hoping that it will make it any less important or any less disgusting. We cannot immediately doubt accusations when we hear them. Especially in high school, what does a survivor stand to gain when coming out with their story other than justice? In the past, survivors have faced ridicule, ostracization, and disbelief. Their closest friends have turned on them to ally with the perpetrators. Some even feel guilt, a perceived shame for ‘ruining their assaulter’s life’ by speaking up. This is all wrong. What we have allowed here is rape culture; we’ve upheld stereotypes and ideals that normalize sexual assault and make our communities more susceptible to it. In the past, we have suffocated the voices of survivors, making them feel as if keeping their experiences secret is the best way to heal.
I do not feel like I need to explain what is wrong here. Time and time again, the responsibility for reform has fallen into the hands of the youth. It should not take more than a dozen girls posting their worst experiences for the world to see in order for us to notice the problem in the first place. The administration can do better. We, as a community, can do better. And the numerous survivors in our communities deserve better. It’s time we confront the rape culture that has permeated through our community, and stop defending or justifying the actions of sexual assaulters. Let’s start now.