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."