Katie Causey: It’s on us, and it’s time for action

Katie Causey

Content Warning For Discussion of Sexual Violence and Harassment

Editors’ Note: In light of recent sexual assault allegations made against several members of the Palo Alto community that have circulated around social media, several student activists and community figures have called for reform—both in culture and in practice. The following was written by former school board candidate Katie Causey, who had made Title IX a focal point of her run in 2020.

Katie Causey, a former school board candidate, lays out a three-part reform plan to eliminate sexual violence and harassment from Palo Alto by 2031. Graphic: Kabir Advani

“I believe you, because, well, you’re innocent-looking.” Those were the words of my high school administrator when I reported sexual harassment at age 15. He would then tell me that 10 years from now, no one would remember the months I had spent attending class while fearing for my physical safety. Over 10 years later, I ran for school board.

In the last decade, the Palo Alto Unified School District was found by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to have violated federal anti-discrimination law Title IX and has faced a number of related lawsuits. Multiple staff members have been removed for inappropriate or predatory behavior. Beyond PAUSD’s campuses, widely publicized cases such as Gunn graduate Chanel Miller’s sexual assault on the Stanford campus have shown that addressing sexual assault and supporting survivors is a community-wide effort. However, the Palo Alto City Council has long delayed implementation of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which other cities have used to help address sexual violence and harassment.

Reflecting on the past 12 years, my personal experience has highlighted the culture of harassment and the district’s lack of comprehensive action — reporting my own experience at age 15, repeatedly advocating for myself throughout the rest of high school and being warned by girls in the grade above me about a predatory teacher who would years later be removed for such behavior. When completing Title IX coursework in college, I realized how badly my rights had been violated.

When I moved back to Palo Alto, I would still hear stories of sexual harassment and violence. In 2020, a Paly alumnus was accused of assaulting over 20 individuals through high school and college, and a petition circulated calling for legal action and his expulsion from college. While I was on the campaign trail, alumni from the past several decades discussed with me their own experiences of harassment and violence in the school community — and that parents of recent graduates felt the district was not adequately responsive.

I am asking Palo Alto to be a leader in community public safety to create a future where sexual violence and harassment are non-existent.

The Palo Alto Board of Education and the Palo Alto City Council should pursue a joint initiative and commit to take steps to eliminate sexual violence and harassment from our community by 2031. A timeline of this initiative could look like the following:

  1. In the next year, commit to first evaluating reporting processes and taking action to establish a framework to accurately measure the presence of sexual violence and harassment in our community.
    1. The school board and the city council should begin with audits of the processes for reporting sexual violence and harassment both in the school district and city to identify faults in the reporting process. 
    2. PAUSD should set a deadline to draft and finalize the Equity Scorecard — the PAUSD Promise’s proposed method of measuring whether or not the district has an equitable learning environment — to avoid future delays.
    3. The city should adopt a CEDAW ordinance as the Palo Alto Human Relations Commission recommended over two years ago.
    4. The city and the district should start conducting annual surveys to effectively measure the presence of sexual violence and harassment toward all genders — one survey in the city under a Palo Alto CEDAW ordinance and the other in the district under the Equity Scorecard.
  2. In the next two years, strengthen our resources to support survivors and prevent sexual violence and harassment.
    1. The city should align with PAUSD on making resources readily available for survivors, such as by including information on sexual violence crisis lines with utility bills and on the back of student ID cards. Educational events on preventing sexual violence, supporting survivors, and understanding Title IX and how the district is addressing harassment should happen annually.
    2. Students should be required to take online sexual harassment- and assault-prevention courses before registering for classes, buying prom tickets, etc.
    3. The city and district should work with nonprofits such as Safe and Sound to strengthen mandatory reporter training and adapt individual youth in afterschool programs to help combat predation.
    4. Recognizing that law enforcement is a resource not every individual can turn to, the city must work with local nonprofits (YWCA, WomenSV, Santa Clara County Survivor Resources, etc.) to provide survivors with clear alternative routes to report sexual violence and harassment.
  3. In the next four years, invest in new approaches to community safety.
    1. The city, in collaboration with the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, should develop a program based on Washington D.C.’s Collective Action For Safe Spaces to help combat harassment: For example, by training our bars, restaurants, hotels and local businesses to identify, intervene and deescalate harassment.
    2. A Title IX point person should be established on each district campus. The district should consider investing in an ombudsman (an attorney available to advocate for the PAUSD community) and training local alumni and law students to help support students in navigating the reporting process.

Over the last decade, many of the above ideas have been discussed to address the problem of sexual violence and harassment in PAUSD and the broader community, but few have become reality. The truth is, I am afraid. In every conversation I have with mental health professionals working with adolescents, they tell me how prevalent this problem is at PAUSD. During my run for school board, students told me about some of the unprofessional and inappropriate comments they received when reporting sexual assault — comments nearly identical to the ones I received over a decade ago.

I think of the survivors who need advocates during the most emotionally intense periods of their lives.

I think of my peers who saw when reporting failed me, and how that stopped them from reporting their own experiences.

I think of students watching now. 

I think of how we know abuse without ramifications escalates.

Ultimately, this moment will come down to whether or not behavior is met with consequences, whether or not change becomes reality. Every solution I’ve seen students propose is well within our reach. 

To the survivors standing now where I did over a decade ago, know that there’s so much brightness ahead of you. We have pushed students to a mental breaking point. Students should not have to fight for a safe learning environment to begin with. Palo Alto is supposed to be creating the next scientists, artists, entrepreneurs and leaders, not the next Brock Turners.

Palo Alto has the resources to invest and lead the way in creating a future where sexual violence and harassment no longer exist.