In a school district troubled by sexual misconduct among students and teachers, a district-level task force and a grassroots parent effort have launched to address the problem in Palo Alto's schools.
Interim Superintendent Karen Hendricks announced at the last school board meeting on Oct. 10 that she will be leading a task force devoted to ending sexual assault and harassment in the district. The task force had been in the works under the leadership of former Superintendent Max McGee, she told the Weekly.
The group, named Responsive and Impactful Safe Environment (RISE), will be made up of high school students, parents and administrators as well as the district's Title IX compliance officer and representatives from the student services department, the high school wellness centers and the professional development department. The task force will start meeting biweekly by the end of this month, Hendricks said.
Three phases of work are planned: The first will focus on the district's ongoing compliance with a federal resolution agreement that outlines steps the district must take to address violations of anti-discrimination law Title IX; the second on finding prevention education — materials, curriculum, speakers and the like — for the high schools; and the third, identifying those materials for the middle schools. Hendricks said she aims to start the middle school work in January.
As a superintendent's task force, the group will serve in an advisory capacity to Hendricks, making recommendations to her that she can report to the board "as appropriate," according to board policy on representative and deliberative groups. The group has set up an email address ([email protected]) and webpage for community members to provide feedback and ask questions.
A group of concerned Paly parents, meanwhile, started meeting this summer and are now working with school leadership, Stanford University and national experts to develop a prevention program for both Paly and Gunn High School.
One of those parents, John Fitton, said that while there is "due diligence" to be done on the part of the district to address missteps in following both policy and law, he wanted to find a way to go deeper: to tackle systemic cultural issues around sexual violence with teens, teachers and parents.
Fitton, now retired, spent 18 years as a counselor at colleges and universities, including at Southern Oregon University, where he helped launch a prevention program focused on men's role in preventing sexual violence. His daughter attends Paly and his son graduated last year.
"We've got a system with Title IX; we've got reporting processes, but that doesn't really educate about what causes these issues, what's expected of me (as a student)," Fitton told the Weekly. He hopes a prevention program would teach students to combat a "culture of silence" around sexual assault and to "empower students to give them tools so that they know how to navigate the issues."
He and two other parents, in partnership with Paly Principal Kim Diorio, have researched college prevention programs and met with experts. They're envisioning a program, tentatively called the Violence Prevention Initiative, that will include expert training and peer-to-peer mentoring.
They have met with Brenda Tracy, a national advocate and sexual-assault survivor working with college athletes, including the Stanford football team. They also met with Jackson Katz, the co-founder of national prevention and education program Mentors in Violence Prevention. (Diorio said she recently asked her staff to watch Katz's TED Talk on gender violence, in which he argues that it is "first and foremost" a men's rather than women's issue.)
They're also collaborating with two deans of students at Stanford and hope to bring student leaders and football players to Paly and Gunn to speak to students.
Student education and leadership will be a key feature of the program. Fitton said they plan to train interested students as leaders who can then teach and talk with their peers about how to navigate thorny issues such as consent, underage drinking, violence and harassment. Some students have already expressed an interest in participating and Diorio plans to meet with other student groups in the coming weeks.
Because sexual assault does not just happen on school campuses — and some parents and administrators argue that it is happening more frequently off campus at parties, in homes and elsewhere — the program will also draw in parents.
Of 50 Title IX-related complaints on the district's most recent Uniform Complaint Procedure log, including allegations of sexual assault, harassment and unwanted touching during last and this school year, 15 were reported as taking place off campus. This year, there have only been two off-campus reports: one sexual harassment report with "possible bullying/harassment on campus" and another report with both on- and off-campus incidences at JLS Middle School, according to the log.
The district is required under Title IX to respond to incidences that happen off campus but impact students' educational environment at school.
The grassroots group is also planning presentations and programs for teachers, staff and sports coaches.
Diorio said the program will not be a "one-and-done" but a strategic, sustained effort.
"It would have been easy for us to schedule a guest speaker to come in and do an assembly," she said. "That's not the right way to do this."
Along with the two parents Fitton is working with, Brandi Walters and Tim Hmelar (who has worked with East Bay youth on violence prevention issues) Fitton said they represent about two dozen other Paly families who have given them input on this issue. They have also sought feedback from parent teacher associations and the Paly Sports Boosters, which raises funds for athletics.
In the age of Brock Turner, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein, Fitton said he's hopeful that Palo Alto will, at its own scale, be a part of a shift in the way people talk about and respond to sexual violence and harassment.
They hope to launch the prevention program in January.
For immediate in-person crisis assistance and counseling services, contact the YWCA of Silicon Valley's 24-hour Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking Support Line at 800-572-2782. For more information, go to ywca-sv.org.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of sexual misconduct in the Palo Alto school district. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.