“Rapists do not belong at prom!”
“Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Gender violence has got to go!”
About 70-80 students and their supporters belted out these and other chants as they walked along Los Gatos’ N. Santa Cruz Avenue as part of the Survivor Solidarity March and Rally on Aug. 10, the Los Gatan first reported.
Once gathered at Town Plaza Park, speakers focused their ire on what they characterized as Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District’s inaction on sexual assault reports.
Addressing the crowd, Abbi Berry, a co-founder of From Survivors For Survivors, reflected on how her anger at the unmet need to hold abusers and enablers accountable helped inspire 160 Los Gatos High School students to share their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment on the Instagram account @metoo.losgatos.
“I felt empowered by survivors to speak up and challenge the systemic rape culture that I knew had been around for too long,” Berry said. “People are still talking about the shockwaves we sent through the town. This team—our movement—did a lot.”
But, she says, it also took a toll.
“We had parents calling and yelling at us; moms texting their friends, slut-shaming survivors, begging their friends to take their sons’—their abusers’—side,” she said. “We lost friends and teachers. At times we abandoned our emotional well-being for this fight.”
Alaina Fox, the former editor-in-chief of the Los Gatos High School newspaper El Gato, says she’s experienced that foul language from a parent, but her criticisms were instead directed at the lack of action from district administrators—specifically the advisor she says continually shut down attempts by reporters to bring these problems to light.
In an interview, the recent grad said both an editorial on failings of sexual assault education and a staffer’s pitch for a story on assault were vetoed. Additionally, their journalism teacher refused to let students write about a case already proceeding in the courts.
“I ran into censorship time and time again,” Fox said. “We’re really just asking for the basic, bare minimum. It seems like some sort of outside help is needed.”
District Superintendent Michael Grove didn’t address the controversy directly when asked, but said the school system wants to make sure students feel free to express themselves. He admits the process isn’t always perfect, but asserts staff provides resources and guidance for students to “lead the decision-making in the student newsroom” and “maintain journalistic integrity to ensure the pursuit of truth based on facts.”
But during her poetry-tinged speech, Fox said she sees a pattern of punishment for anyone trying to highlight problems at her former school.
“The goal wasn’t to make things better,” Fox said. “The goal was to avoid having to deal with us. The culture has yet to change, but we have changed. … We refuse to burn out.”
Isabella Pistaferri, a recent graduate of Palo Alto’s Henry M. Gunn High School, detailed how her own troubling experiences with the Title IX sex assault reporting process led her to co-found the school’s “Hands-Off IX” club.
She says when she initially reported a sexual assault to a Gunn wellness counselor but had to leave to take a test, she was told she’d be called back to make a more extensive report, but then never was—an account confirmed by documents. Pistaferri says she was frustrated with how she was treated by their former Title IX coordinator, Megan Farrell, who now does this work for the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union School District.
“The first thing Ms. Farrell said to me when she saw me was I reminded her of an Italian model—a seemingly inappropriate comment to make to a vulnerable 16-year-old girl on behalf of an educator,” she told the crowd, claiming Farrell even answered her phone as Pistaferri was trying to officially report sex abuse.
In a September 2019 email to the Pistaferri family provided to Los Gatan, Farrell offered to connect the families—attempting to achieve an informal resolution with the boy Pistaferri says abused her, even though she made it clear she wasn’t interested in mediation.
“They would like to speak with you and perhaps clear the air,” Farrell wrote.
In the email, Farrell described the request from the boy’s family as “genuine and heart-felt,” which Pistaferri says made her feel like the Title IX coordinator was taking the boy’s side.
In an email interview, when asked about the “Italian model” comment, “informal resolution” email and formal complaint Pistaferri subsequently filed, Farrell said she isn’t able to comment on the case, citing student confidentiality.
But on Feb. 23, Palo Alto Union High School District Deputy Superintendent Trent Bahadursingh sent a letter to Pistaferri saying the Palo Alto-based Marek Law Firm investigated her Dec. 7 grievance.
According to Bahadursingh, the investigation found evidence that “Farrell made this [Italian model] comment as part of an effort to make you feel more comfortable,” and she didn’t silence her phone because she was monitoring updates about the health of her mother, whose call Farrell later answered.
The investigation also found evidence that Farrell and former Deputy Superintendent Karen Hendricks incorrectly claimed the school had already investigated the complaint and determined that no policy violation had occurred. Bahadursingh told Pistaferri that Gunn administrators “did not take adequate steps” to protect her from continued harassment.
Yet, Grove confidently defended Farrell’s hiring to assist the district’s Title IX training, compliance, and investigation. He says the district is “firmly committed” to addressing sexual harassment and assault, including the district’s work revising Title IX policies, updating its extracurricular code of conduct, approving a confidential tip line and bringing in restorative practices to resolve conflicts.
“Unfortunately, this is a deeply-rooted social ill in our broader culture and there are no quick fixes globally, nationally, or locally,” Grove said. “Our district is committed to ensuring that our campuses are safe and supportive environments.”