Student journalists investigate 'rape culture' at Paly | April 12, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 12, 2013

Student journalists investigate 'rape culture' at Paly

Writers: Paly not immune from sexual violence, victim-blaming stereotypes

by Chris Kenrick

The editor of a student magazine at Palo Alto High School said students have received "overwhelmingly positive" reaction to a cover package investigating "rape culture" at Paly published Tuesday.

The six-part package in Verde student magazine includes anonymous accounts of two alcohol-fueled 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 mainstream media's "sympathetic" portrayal of high school rapists in Steubenville, Ohio.

The students found that old stereotypes and victim-blaming attitudes prevail even in a liberal community like Palo Alto. They said they want to "break the silence" and challenge readers' sense of inevitability about rape.

Senior Lisie Sabbag, who wrote the main article, said she was surprised to find in researching the story that rape "is a huge part of our culture (at Paly) — bigger than we realize.

"I started with one source, a survivor of rape, and by the end of it I had almost 10 — that was a huge surprise to me," Sabbag said.

"There were people that just heard I was writing the story and wanted to talk to me, and I'm sure there are many others out there."

Sabbag said the Paly writers hope to "start a conversation, just get people to start talking about things out in the open."

Verde co-editor Evelyn Wang said Thursday the articles have "generated the productive discourse we hoped it would, and we are grateful that the majority of readers are focusing on the issue rather than the identities of the sources."

Wang said she was upset by some "negative statements" and "vitriol," particularly in anonymous online comments in Palo Alto Online's Town Square but that overall the discussion had been productive.

Online publication of the story Tuesday led to coverage by NBC, ABC, KTVU, Salon and the Huffington Post, she said.

The investigation by the Verde staff, including Sabbag and writers Will Queen and Savannah Cordova, has been in the works for several months under the supervision of journalism teacher Paul Kandell.

Student reporters and editors consulted with the Ochberg Society for Trauma Journalism, the Student Press Law Center, the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, and the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

"Our cover package ... examines the many facets of rape culture, from victim-blaming to flawed media coverage of rape to the old 'boys will be boys' cliché," Verde editors Wang, Ana Carano and Sharon Tseng wrote in an editors' note.

"By publishing an article on rape culture our goal is to increase discussion about the issue, not the individuals involved," the editors wrote.

The main article, by Sabbag, is titled "You can't tell me I wasn't raped." It includes interviews with two female victims — one a sophomore and one a junior — about their sense of confusion after the events and, in the case of the junior, her experience of feeling socially ostracized at school after she told her parents and police what happened. She did not press charges.

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

Paly students "aren't as immune to rape culture as they think," Sabbag wrote. "While no one would come out and post a Facebook status in favor of rape, behind closed doors things aren't strictly (politically correct)."

An accompanying article examines Paly student attitudes about blaming rape victims based on their flirtatiousness or level of alcohol consumption.

Kandell said the student journalists began discussing a story on rape culture months ago without being sure whether it would pan out.

"We often do this early in the process of a story and the result is 'No, this is too hard, or too complicated,'" Kandell said.

"In this case they started to find that in fact they could find people who would tell their stories. As soon as I knew they were serious about it I referred the writer to the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma," a project of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Kandell said he previously notified Paly Principal Phil Winston that students were working on the story.

"I told him he should know this was happening and I wanted to keep the lines of communication open," Kandell said.

"He knows that students in California have tremendous press freedoms. We don't have prior review — he never reviews work."

Winston said he was proud of the student work, adding that the journalism program "approached these articles with a degree of professionalism that rivals well-established magazines.

"The article is well balanced, detailed and full of resources for people," Winston said. "The article also highlights that serious issues are present in all communities."

Verde editors asked readers not to speculate on the students' identities, noting that Sabbag "drew from a number of cases similar to the ones depicted in the anecdotes."

"You may know or think you know those featured in the article," they wrote.

"Please don't name names or speculate as to the victims' or perpetrators' identities either in conversation or online. Not only does it detract from the goal of proactive discussion on rape culture, but it can be defamatory for both victims and alleged perpetrators. ... Speculation can quickly spiral into false accusations, which are damaging to people's lives."

The Verde magazine articles have been posted at


What can students, parents, school officials and community members do to change the "rape culture" in high schools? Share your thoughts on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Just read that a Saratoga High School student committed suicide after being raped, then bullied about it. Three students have now been charged in the attack. We need to do much much more to make the victims feel safe and help them bring charges against the criminals. Victim blaming has to end.

Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Start off by proving rape through a rape kit, at a hospital. Once established, there will be a great effort to support the rape victim, including criminal prosecution. Without a rape kit, there is no proven rape, just accusations.