When Palo Alto High School journalism students published its issue on teen "rape culture" last week, they knew it would send shockwaves beyond the campus.
But they had no way of knowing the incidents they described occurring to 10 Paly girls would be followed days later with revelations that a similar date-rape of an intoxicated 15-year-old Saratoga High School student led to the ultimate tragic outcome, suicide.
The result has been extensive news coverage and commentary over the last 10 days about a teen culture that all too frequently makes the victim suffer twice, once during an unwanted sexual assault and again by being ostracized by friends and bullied and shamed by other students, often in vicious posts on social media.
The Verde magazine staff has performed a courageous public service for its school and the community by bringing this teen culture out into the open.
The package of stories (available online at palyvoice.com) is anchored by a story entitled "You can't tell me I wasn't raped," which tells the stories of two young Paly girls who were sexually assaulted by older high school boys after all four were intoxicated.
The stories paint a powerful picture of how easily friends of victims can turn against them and accuse them of inviting sex by the way they dress and respond under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
The goal of the Verde staff was to promote an open discussion among students and parents on the dangers of making assumptions about another person's desires and their inability to consent to behavior while impaired. It sent a clear and important message that consent cannot be given by the clothes we wear, our body language or flirtatious comments. It is the responsibility of both individuals to affirmatively consent and to recognize when alcohol or drug use makes consent impossible.
It also poignantly shows how devastating it can be when friends take sides and magnify the hurt through social media that is in part designed to keep adults from finding out.
These are not easy concepts for teens to absorb or put into practice, as comments published in the Verde articles and on Palo Alto Online's Town Square forum show. A shocking number of teens and adults persist in the belief that an intoxicated teen girl (or boy) who doesn't say "no" is welcoming a sexual experience and is capable of making that decision knowing all its consequences.
It is also not easy for school officials to know what to do when off-campus behavior becomes an on-campus, "everybody is talking about it" phenomenon. But schools have a legal obligation to take immediate action if a hostile learning environment is created for any student, and administrators need to aggressively respond under these circumstances by addressing them as forcefully as they would any other disruption.
Coincidentally and worth noting is that today is the National Day of Silence, started in 1996 at the University of Virginia and now the largest student-led effort aimed at creating safer schools for all, regardless of sexual orientation. The concept is to draw attention to anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in all schools by remaining silent all day except when required to speak during class time.
The Verde story got a wide range of media coverage, including on local television and in Salon and the Huffington Post. Paly students Lisie Sabbag, who wrote the piece, and co-editors Evelyn Wang and Sharon Tseng, along with faculty advisor Paul Kandell, all were interviewed on KQED Radio's Forum program.
High school students and administrators everywhere are facing the issues addressed in the Verde stories, but mostly without openly discussing them. Thanks to the careful efforts of these young Paly journalists, our school community is taking that important first step.