Survey on sexual harassment reveals troubling data

Soumya Jhaveri and Sophia Muys

Guidance Counselor for the Class of 2017, Charles Taylor, is one of the adults on campus a student can report any incident of sexual harassment to. Photo: Sophia Muys
Guidance Counselor for the Class of 2017, Charles Taylor, is one of the adults on campus a student can report any incident of sexual harassment to. Photo: Sophia Muys.

The results from a spring 2017 survey administered by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights note that a mere 12 percent of the 243 students who said they experienced sexual harassment reported it to the school in the past year at Palo Alto Unified School District’s two high schools.

Additionally, out of the 67 percent of the 2,549 students from Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School who took the survey, only 15 percent of students who said they saw the an act of sexual harassment reported it to school authorities. 41 percent of students claimed it was considered “ordinary or normal behavior.”

Students simultaneously defined the act as ‘unwanted’ but also as ‘no big deal’ or as ‘kidding,’” according to the OCR Summary of Results and Next Steps.

Students may not know where to report incidents of sexual harassment. They can report them to any teacher on campus, who will then refer the student to someone else.

“[Students] can go to anyone, an assistant principal, a teacher, a guidance counselor,” Taylor said.

“If [a student] is not sure, definitely come to guidance.”

A lack of reporting sexual harassment was not a trend seen in students alone. 31 percent of parents whose children said they had experienced on-campus sexual assault reported the incident. Ten out of 35 parents who explained their reasoning for this reported that the incident was not important enough to report.

Troublingly, six percent of the 742 staff members who responded to the survey said that they witnessed sexual harassment in the past year, and 27 percent reported sexual harassment they had heard of but not actually witnessed. 

Taylor mentioned the Tarasoff law, which states that “mental health professionals have a duty to protect individuals who are being threatened with bodily harm by a patient.” Therefore, teachers, administrators, and counselors are mandated to report if a student has been harmed or is in danger of being harmed. Despite the district requirement of mandated reporting, approximately six percent of staff did not know they were mandated to report incidents of sexual assault or believed they did not have to report such incidents.

When asked if they had been trained on “appropriate boundaries” using Office of Civil Rights approved materials, 31 percent of teachers said that they has not received any training.

The district is now expected by the Office of Civil Rights to “assess perceptions of safety conditions annually,” “provide education and training,” “increase student support and resources,” and “measure and monitor progress” to foster a safe and healthy environment. Steps will include administering a school climate survey every year, making changes to the process of reporting assault and changing curriculum of classes such as Living Skills.

The PAUSD Board of Education is expected to vote on instilling the recommended changes as soon as mid-September in hopes that these changes will bring about, as the Summary states, “a cultural shift where harassment of any kind is not tolerated and such behavior is not considered the normal experience of adolescents.”