'Rape culture' articles spark inquiry

In aftermath of Verde cover story, school district reviews its legal obligations

A Palo Alto High School student publication's description of how two victims of sexual assault were treated by their friends and other students has led to an examination of what responsibilities the school may have to protect the victims from such harassment.

Verde magazine's six-part cover package published April 9 included anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled, off-campus sexual assaults of Paly students, interviews with victims and other Paly students about rape, discussion of Paly student attitudes on victim-blaming and an editorial criticizing "sympathetic" media portrayal of high-school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.

When a sexual assault victim is further victimized through name-calling and other harassment at school, even when the original assault occurs off-campus, the law requires schools to investigate and take steps to protect the victim, according to Stanford Law Professor Michele Dauber, an expert on discrimination law and architect of a newly adopted sexual assault complaint and adjudication process at Stanford.

In a letter to the school district, Dauber cited federal law and a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter from the U.S. Department of Education to all school districts advising that a school has a legal obligation to conduct an investigation when it learns that any student is being subjected to a hostile environment.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said Wednesday the district is reviewing "what we knew (and) what steps we took to address the concerns" raised by the Verde articles. He said part of the district's inquiry is to determine whether "additional steps (by the school district) are warranted in the individual matter and in school and district policies."

As co-chair of Stanford's Board on Judicial Affairs, Dauber formulated an "Alternative Review Process" for handling sexual-assault cases at Stanford that was adopted by the university's Faculty Senate May 2 after a three-year pilot.

Dauber said Stanford's new process is meant to "create a more welcoming process for victims while maintaining a high level of protection of the rights of accused students."

"Stanford's new policy places it in the first ranks of schools who have taken rape seriously as a civil rights issue for female students," Dauber said. "While male Yale students were marching around their campus last year chanting 'no means yes' and other horrible misogynist pro-rape slogans, Stanford faculty and students were working hard on making Stanford a better, safer place for female students," she said.

Federal law requires schools to investigate alleged sexual assaults it knows or "reasonably should know" about even if they occurred off campus, according to the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter.

Under Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, school districts are obligated to determine whether the alleged assaults led to a "hostile environment" on campus, both for the victim and for other students, the letter said.

In one of the Paly cases recounted in the Verde article, the alleged sexual assault victim felt so tormented by fellow students after word of the off-campus incident got out that she had to leave school.

"Everyone was making me feel like just a lying slut who got herself in this situation," the student told Verde magazine. "Even though I knew that's not what happened, that's how people were making me feel."

The girl said she also felt harassed electronically through Facebook messages and Tumblr posts that said she was just looking for attention.

Verde reported that the Palo Alto High School Adolescent Counseling Services filed a police report on the student's behalf but the student chose not to press charges.

Dauber said the district was "legally obligated to conduct (an) investigation and to ensure that the victim was free from retaliation and additional harassment."

Verde editor Evelyn Wang and the author of the main story, Lisie Sabbag, told the Weekly they were concerned about the inquiry because it could further traumatize the rape victims. "This will cause more trauma and it simply isn't good for our sources at all," Wang said.

Wang said the student journalists feel people asking for an investigation had "mischaracterized and conflated" elements of the Paly story.

The 2011 Office for Civil Rights policy statement on sexual violence says schools should obtain consent from the complainant or the complainant's parents if the complainant is under 18 before starting an investigation, although elsewhere it states a school "that knows, or reasonably should know, about possible harassment must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation."

The school investigation "is different from any law-enforcement investigation, and a law-enforcement investigation does not relieve the school of its independent…obligation to investigate the conduct," the agency said.

Dauber said she had little information on how the district was following up on her call for a Title IX investigation other than a brief note from Skelly saying that "we have a plan on this and are moving forward.

"'We have begun to gather some facts and are going to circle around this issue. Your analysis is helpful,'" Dauber said Skelly's note said.

Dauber suggested that the district seek "technical assistance" from OCR on the subjects of sexual violence and sexual harassment.

"I believe that is the best and most certain way to ensure that PAUSD complies fully with the law," she wrote in an email Wednesday.

"It would also help to show the public that PAUSD is trying to get this right and is engaging with experts in the federal government to do that."

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Like this comment
Posted by Thanks Michele
a resident of Barron Park
on May 16, 2013 at 10:11 am

Way to go Michele, why does someone has to tell Skelly what to do. He should know that, he is our superintendent.

Like this comment
Posted by what?
a resident of Barron Park
on May 16, 2013 at 10:33 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2013 at 10:39 am

> When a sexual assault victim is further victimized

Aren�t we be using the word �alleged� here? Just claiming that an �assault� occurred, without filing a police report, as well as criminal charges, doesn�t prove that an assault really occurred.

> Federal law requires schools to investigate alleged sexual assaults
> it knows or "reasonably should know" about even if they
> occurred off campus, according to the 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter.

This is incredibly bad law. It sets the stage for duplication with on-going police investigations. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

> Dauber said the district was "legally obligated to
> conduct (an) investigation and to ensure that the
> victim was free from retaliation and additional harassment."

More bad law! What in the world is the District supposed to do to stop kids talking about an �alleged� incident off-campus? Become like the IRS and seize the phone records of every student in school to determine who might have been contacting the �alleged� victim? Who is going to pay for all of this �investigation�. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] And what role is the Board supposed to play in all of this? Presumably that are to kept apprised of the situation, but what other roles are they expected to fulfill?

Another clear example of a government out of control!!! If a rape occurs on campus�the police should deal with it. If it becomes clear that one student has assaulted another, presumably the District has clear rules about removal of a student from campus, leading up to suspensions/expulsions. Hopefully the District�s responses are to be found in the California Ed Code. If not, the District should kick this up to the County Office of Education for both guidance, and leadership, in getting the State Legislature to correct the Ed Code so that every District in California is operating under the same, easily understood, rules dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault.

But if an �assault� occurs off-campus, the issues are far less clear. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

We are sitting on a powder keg here. This law needs to be rescinded as quickly as possible!

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2013 at 10:40 am

Aren't we->Shouldn't we

Like this comment
Posted by very sad
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2013 at 10:42 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Alum Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 16, 2013 at 10:45 am

I think an issue that needs to be addressed is binge drinking. Every story that has come out that involves a sexual assault in the last several years has also featured a great deal of alcohol.

I realize I'm dreaming when I say that teaching kids that there are other ways to have fun besides getting blind drunk would be a desirable lesson. Parents need to assess the role of alcohol in their lives, and how their behavior teaches their kids unspoken lessons.

Young people need to be taught to make conscious decisions rather than letting booze and peer pressure drive them.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 16, 2013 at 10:51 am

If my daughter were then raped by the same boy(s) and I found out the school district knew this boy had done this before and did not take action to project my daughter all hell would break loose.

The school and district do have an obligation to project our children while they are at school. Which includes against harassment regarding activities that took place off campus. AND, ensuring that investigations take place to determine criminal guilt.

The parents of all of these kids are responsible for this disgusting behavior. I disagreed with the term "rape culture" because I think it sort of glorifies it. But at least it is bringing conversation to the table about the problem. Hopefully eventually we will stop talking about rape and start educating our children so we can reduce the incidents and inappropriate reactions to it.

Like this comment
Posted by Eileen 1
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm

Eileen 1 is a registered user.

This is a very informative article - thank you very very much to the reporter and the Weekly for putting together a coherent explanation of the facts.
I was present at the May 7th daytime "Special Meeting" of the School Board. At this meeting Professor Dauber did inquire of the Superintendent what steps he was taking to look into the harassment situation at Paly that was reported in the Verde. I was taken aback to hear Dr. Skelly respond to her that he had no knowledge of the situation or any responsibility that the district might have towards this student. From his remarks I wasn't even confident that he knew of the article or the student to which she was so obviously referring. Had he simply stated that it was a concern to the district and he was gathering information I would have been reassured, but instead he seemed irritated that Professor Dauber would even bring this up as an issue. I am relieved to hear that on reflection our superintendent has decided to look into this matter.

Similarly, board member Ms. Camille Townsend expressed not merely disagreement with Professor Dauber, but an attitude of disgust that Professor Dauber would dare oppose her interpretation of a law that was being cited. According to this article, Professor Dauber is an "expert in discrimination law." In previous decades the Stanford faculty was considerably more involved and interested in PAUSD than they appear to be now. I wish our district would avail themselves more often of the considerable wealth of knowledge we have right across El Camino. At the very least I would be prouder of our elected officials if they could show courtesy and respect to members of the Stanford community when they do show an interest in the district and offer their expertise.

Like this comment
Posted by Big
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 16, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Big is a registered user.

"The girl said she also felt harassed electronically through Facebook messages and Tumblr posts that said she was just looking for attention."

One mom at Terman is on a campaign to get the school district to ban smart phones which she says will stop all cyberbullying on school grounds.

In my opinion this would not do anything to stop bullying, the teens would just do their cyberbullying from the bus, or mall, or at home, however it would cover the schools legally and PAUSD could not be blamed for any incident stemming from cyberbullying.

Like this comment
Posted by PalyDad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 17, 2013 at 2:01 pm

PalyDad is a registered user.

I am having trouble understanding what happened from the story. What does Dr. Skelly mean that he is investigating "what we knew"? Who is "we"? If "we" is "teachers" and staff then Mr. Kandell knew everything even before the article came out, or did he? Isn't he the advisor who worked on the story with the students? Stands to reason the investigation should start there with whether that teacher reported what he knew to the right people. I'm sure he did. Im sure when it appeared in the paper wasn't when Skellly knew because there are surely policies that required teachers to report sexual harassment and of course Mr. Kandell and Phil Winston did that. Then what did they do? So why does Skelly need to investigate what he did after Kandell told him all the facts? Is Skelly investigating himself? I am confused.

Like this comment
Posted by Left of Boom
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 17, 2013 at 2:32 pm

Left of Boom is a registered user.

This is a useful article describing a real problem. If the harassment and cyberbullying occur on campus, the school district needs to investigate and take these complaints seriously.

Like this comment
Posted by Jls mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 18, 2013 at 10:43 am

Jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

When Mr. Kandell and his students were on Krasny I think he said that he told Mr. Winston and the guidance counselors all about working on the story. I'm sure he wasn't just telling them about what his journalism class was working on. No one knows what was said or what Mr. Winston did but isn't that how it should be? Should we have intrusive laws like Title IX if the even say that which we don't know that this story is even right. There might not even be "one truth."

Like this comment
Posted by Peggy Duncan
a resident of Community Center
on May 18, 2013 at 10:27 pm

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

@JLS mom of 2
It took a lot of work to get rape and sexual harassment recognized as real problems that you could even have laws against (especially for date rape). There's a real temptation even now to think that these are not real crimes or real civil rights problems. I remember going to Take Back the Night rallies at the University of Michigan a long time ago.
I'm a little sad to see that there is still some of that old feeling. If this article was about racist physical assaults and bullying, no one would wonder whether the school district should be investigating. But because its rape some people think it's "private". The women's movement fought for years to have sexual harassment recognized as a civil rights issue.
The school has to take the law seriously and to train their teachers to follow the law and then the teachers have to follow the law. Otherwise all that effort for those years will be for nothing. I don't know what Mr. Kandell did or not as far as reporting to the school, but it's an important thing to find out. These victims are students first. I would want to make sure that they got all of the help and support they were entitled to from the school. That's the main reason reporting is required, to help the victims and to prevent more harassment. I have lived in environments where harassment was tolerated and it is terrible for all women.
I applaud the students for their hard work and enterprise and bravery in telling these stories. Now it is time for the adults to make sure the law is followed and has been followed.

Like this comment
Posted by jls mom of 2
a resident of JLS Middle School
on May 19, 2013 at 10:14 am

jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

Peggy, you are right. I stand corrected. I myself remember reading Susan Estrich's "Real Rape" in the late 1980s and being very affected by it, also Susan Brownmiller's classic Against Our Will. Those books were very important at one time and they led to a lot of important legal reforms, including the Education Department rules on sexual harassment and sexual assault that we are talking about whether they were followed at Paly or not.

I think you are right that it seems like there are some big questions about how Mr. Kandell acted and whether he followed the law or not. I agree with "Big" that if the school (including teachers) knows that a student (and you are so right, they are not "sources" they are students first!) has been sexually harassed, or bullied for reporting a rape, then they have to report it and such. If Paul Kandell knew about all that harassment that is in the story but didn't take that knowledge to Mr. Winston as a report of sexual harassment then he should be trained on Title IX and such. We need our teachers to be aware of the laws and to protect our kids.

If Mr. Kandell did report the harassment to Mr. Winston then did Mr. Winston do an investigation and report? After I read your post Peggy I looked up the Palo Alto sexual harassment policy just for kicks and it says that any school employee who knows about sexual harassment involving a student shall report it to the principal "regardless of whether the student files a complaint." I thought based on what Mr. Kandell said on Krasny that he did that, but you are right that we don't really know whether that really was what the law says or not.

Then the policy says that Mr. Winston was supposed to take "prompt, appropriate action to end the harassment and address its effects on the victim. The principal or designee shall also advise the victim of any other remedies that may be
available. The principal or designee shall file a report with the Superintendent or
designee and refer the matter to law enforcement authorities, where required."

Web Link

Somehow that didn't happen according to this story since Dr. Skelly didn't have that report, and who knows whether the victims got all the services they were supposed to. In another thread on the OCR panel in town the other night, which I did not attend, it says that those remedies include "additional opportunities and services like academic support and counseling to the target, implementing harassment monitoring programs and awareness training, and adopting and reporting new policies so that the harassment does not occur again."

Paly's policy also says that Phil Winston was supposed to check back with the victim every two weeks to make sure there was no more harassment. I wonder if that happened? It sure doesn't sound like it from the story, but of course it's just a story written by students and we can't expect them to cover whether or not their own teacher and principal followed the rules in this case. When the journalists become the story things can get messy.

Does this PAUSD policy even follow the law? It sure seems different and weaker than the link to the long Education letter in the story, that's for sure. Maybe Mr. Kandell and Mr. Winston didn't know what they were supposed to do because the policy doesn't follow the law, and no one told them. Maybe they weren't trained right. That's another whole issue that we can't expect the students to report on. But we could possibly get some reporting from one of our local papers on these hot issues.

Whatever happens I sure hope that the Title IX investigation protects the victims and their identities, and conducts a good thorough and confidential investigation that gives the victims everything they should have received under the law including counseling and academic support, makes sure their academic records don't suffer due to the harassment, and such. And if the teachers weren't trained, train them, please. And the policies if they aren't right, fix them so it can't happen again. And put into place trainings for students, and issue some kind of notices telling them that even when rape happens off campus, it can still be sexual harassment especially if the effects are felt on campus as Mr. Kandell and his students showed was happening at Paly.

And if Mr. Kandell and Mr. Winston, or other staff did make mistakes I hope they learn from them. We can all always learn and improve. Not saying that they did or didn't but if so, Dr. Skelly should get to the bottom of it and fix it.

Thanks Peggy for setting me straight.

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