During a young woman’s sophomore year at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, a fellow student sexually assaulted her off campus. That began years of intense suffering, taunting and trauma.
“I was forced to choose between my physical and mental safety and my education,” according to the student, who ultimately left the high school. “While I was able to file a lawsuit on my case, it should not be a student’s responsibility to go to court because their school has failed to protect them.”
The student’s story, relayed by a peer to the Santa Clara Board of Supervisors Sept. 22, was part of 2½ hours of gripping public comment supervisors heard in advance of discussing a countywide review of Title IX proposed by Supervisor Dave Cortese.
Title IX prevents discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational institution that receives federal funds. It requires schools to address complaints of sexual harassment and violence or risk losing funding.
Cortese’s proposal comes in the wake of Trump Administration changes to Title IX rules, which would apply criminal justice standards to campus sexual assault cases by requiring a higher burden of proof from the accuser.
Stanford University alumna Sabrina Medler said she was assaulted while she was a student there.
“(I) chose not to pursue a Title IX process simply because I was aware how few cases resulted in repercussions for an assailant,” Medler said. She said she did not want to relive the trauma she experienced, certain that it would not result in discipline for her assailant.
“I knew I wouldn’t win my case. I had been drinking, he was my friend, it was my idea to leave the party,” Medler said. “None of these things mean my assault was my fault but they would to a Title IX panel.”
By the time Medler graduated, she said most women she knew at Stanford were survivors of sexual assault.
“When I brought this referral forward, I wasn’t expecting this degree of cathartic response,” said Cortese. “If indeed, part of what has occurred today has been that — putting this on a public agenda and allowing this kind of testimony to come forth which otherwise might have been stifled or lacked a place to come forward — then as painful as it was to listen to, it’s been a good thing to hear. A horrible thing to have happen.”
Santa Clara County Board of Education President Claudia Rossi said she’s heard ongoing concerns from parents about the safety of their daughters going to college and that they might be victims of violence.
Much of the supervisors’ debate focused on what authority the board actually has because county government cannot make any changes to Title IX rules or to the California Education Code. The cost of doing a legal review of Title IX was another concern.
“The worst outcome would be that we do a review and can’t offer any meaningful solutions,” Supervisor Susan Ellenberg said. “My understanding is that the county has no oversight, no enforcement ability to change the problematic federal regulations.”
Supervisor Cindy Chavez suggested supervisors might be able to exert influence through lobbying at the state and federal levels and putting money toward sexual assault prevention and resources for survivors.
Supervisors approved a revised version of Cortese’s recommendation, presented by Ellenberg. Chavez and Cortese were the dissenting votes, indicating they wanted the action to go further and begin analysis of sexual assault rules and enforcement.
They said Ellenberg’s suggestion, which asked for a report on what actions the board can take, did not go far enough. The county’s Office of Women’s Policy and the Office of Gender Based Violence Prevention was directed to bring those ideas to the board on Nov. 17.