“I believe you, because, well, you’re innocent looking.”
Those were the words of my Palo Alto High School administrator when I reported sexual harassment at age 15. He told me that in 10 years, no one would remember the months I spent attending class fearing for my physical safety. More than 10 years later, I ran for Palo Alto school board.
In 2024, a new supervisor will be elected to District 5 in Santa Clara County. District 5 includes communities such as Stanford, Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Gatos, whose schools have made headlines for cases of sexual harassment, assault and lack of Title IX compliance—the federal law protecting students from gender-based violence and harassment. The impacts of such violence are broad. In District 5 there are more than 852 unhoused individuals, and in cities such as Palo Alto 29% are survivors.
The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors acts as a safety net supporting the most vulnerable populations in Santa Clara County, and funds initiatives to address mental health, poverty and public safety. County commissions study how to prevent violence, how survivors have to leave school or work to recover from the impacts of sexual harassment or assault, and how resources like trauma-informed health care can help them recover.
Santa Clara County has made progress on supporting survivors—it’s taken on initiatives such as eliminating the backlog of rape kits and passing an audit on how the county’s K-12 schools and colleges are complying with Title IX rules and regulations. These efforts, however, often aren’t passed until after survivors have been forced to organize extensive actions demanding reform.
The next supervisor for District 5 should be incredibly proactive in building relationships with the students, survivors and organizations working toward change. The schools and colleges in District 5 have active student organizations who are leading the way in their campuses having stronger consent-based education, improved transparent reporting processes and stronger Title IX resources. These young leaders have also played a crucial role in the last several years in ensuring the county takes action to support survivors.
In the 14 years since I reported, I’ve learned the devastating impacts of violence, and I’ve also learned communities can end violence and create paths forward. You can eliminate violence when you invest in a community’s support for each other, when there’s trust between electeds and students. When the mental health and health care professionals, educators and nonprofit workers who work to support survivors and prevent violence have access to affordable housing. When experiencing violence doesn’t mean you end up with nowhere to live.
District 5’s next supervisor should build a strong relationship with the survivors creating change in the region and help ensure the district is proactively leading the way to a safer future.
Katie Causey is a member of Palo Alto’s Human Relations Commission and a former community organizer for the Palo Alto Renters’ Association.
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