Opinion Editor and News Editor
On Tues., Sept. 22, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to pass a substitute referral against an investigation into the uniformity and enforcement of all of the county’s K-12 and post-secondary institutions’ sex and gender-based discrimination and harassment policies. The substitute referral — motioned by Supervisor Susan Ellenberg and supported by Supervisors Mike Wasserman and Joseph Simitian — moves to delay the analysis in favor of a 60-day period for the Board and its Offices to look into the investigation’s scope and gather more information before re-voting on Nov. 17.
Ellenberg, Wasserman, and Simitian opposed Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez on the referral. Cortese initiated the original Board Referral 103031 with the intention of analyzing the county’s institutions for compliance with Title IX, the Clery Act, and any California laws, rules, and regulations related to sex and gender-based harassment and violence. His referral recommends that the County’s Office of Women Policy and Office of Gender Based Violence Prevention lead the investigation, and he states that “the moment an academic institution fails to comply with state and federal sex discrimination laws and laws, rules, and regulations addressing sexual and intimate partner violence and stalking… we have failed our learners.”
Cortese’s initiation of the referral came just weeks after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made sweeping amendments to Title IX, a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination and addresses sexual harassment and violence in educational institutions. The May 6 decision — which went into effect on Aug. 14 — narrows the criteria for what constitutes sexual harassment and loosens the requirements for K-12 and post-secondary institutions to investigate incidents of sexual violence.
Ellenberg based her disagreement with Cortese’s original referral on the fear of causing false hope and making empty promises. By suggesting her substitute referral, Ellenberg emphasized that she did not want to “mislead anybody,” stating, “It is absolutely incumbent on [the Board of Supervisors] to be extraordinarily clear on what we can offer… the heart of my concern is, will we be able to do anything?” In an email statement, Ellenberg maintained her disagreement, saying, “the typical structure is to ask administration to come back with options to perform the work requested, budget estimates and other considerations, not to simply begin work with no agreed upon parameters or actionable outcomes.”
Ellenberg believes that a second reason to wait stems from the absence of comments from the Office of Gender Based Violence, Women’s Policy Office, and the SCC Department of Education. In an email statement Ellenberg said, “Again, this is appropriate and responsible policy making – let’s hear the experts’ recommendations about how to proceed and then make the determination.” Once they have received the comments and publish the scope prior to beginning research, Ellenberg indicated that “It will be more transparent because we will have agreed in public to the parameters and there will be greater accountability because we will agree in public to actionable outcomes to which the community can hold us.”
In response to Ellenberg’s opposal, Cortese emphasized the Board’s obligation to support the survivors of sexual violence at any county educational institution. “Any 60-day delay is potentially someone else that gets hurt,” commented Cortese. “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
At the time of publication, Cortese’s office sent a preliminary response to a request for comment by El Gato News; his office has not yet replied to our questions on the decision.
Prior to the Supervisors’ decision on the referral, dozens of local speakers delivered testimonies urging them to pass the referral. Stanford attendees and alumni represented a large number of those speaking; with complaints concerning the university’s “confusing” and “restrictive” policies that “discouraged reporting,” as well as “ignorant” representatives and their inability to take Title IX cases seriously. Students and graduates from Los Gatos High School, Palo Alto High School, and Gunn High School made up another prominent group of speakers. In their public comments, they shared their experiences with sexual assault and misconduct, how a fear of abusers has manifested in their school environments, and how their schools “failed to comply” with state and federal law after they reported their abusers.
Stanford Senior Class President and student representative for the Board of Trustees David Pantera expressed the need for change using his poor experiences with Stanford’s policies to back his argument. Pantera expressed his concern stating, “Survivors are obviously disincentivized from reporting the rape because they would be afraid of being punished for it.” Another Stanford senior, Maia Brockbank, expressed how she advocated for anti-sexual violence on campus and made attempts to work with Stanford to change its policy. Brockbank expressed how Stanford denied her attempts to work with them multiple times. Brockbank submitted 25 ways they could implement new rules to benefit survivors, although they only addressed two. She feels, “Stanford even went above and beyond to make it more difficult for survivors than DeVos mandated.”
Representatives from Gunn High School and Los Gatos High School expressed their displeasure with how administrators have handled and undermined Title IX cases in the past. An anonymous attendee shared a story expressing her poor experience reporting a Title IX case with Gunn High School. Specifically, the anonymous attendee shared how a no-contact order was continuously ignored, “As my case was being investigated, a no-contact order was issued between me and my assaulter for my safety. Over and over again he ignored this no-contact order and so did the Gunn admin.” The survivor stated how they felt as though “my reports were not taken seriously.”
In addition to verbal testimonies, some were able to share their opinions through a public statement. Ruth Ann Kvamme, an LGHS senior, issued a statement commenting, “Not only must sexual harassment and assault guidelines undergo a thorough review and revision process, but they must be made easily accessible to students so that they are aware of their guaranteed options and rights.”
When asked how she felt about the board’s decision, Palo Alto High School junior and co-president of the survivor advocate group, RISE, Kyla Schwarzbach stated, “I’m so disappointed and honestly a little shocked.” In her fight for justice, she conveyed how she wants to continue to raise awareness for the cause and “keep up our work at PALY trying to further consent education and making the PAUSD system better.”
Similar to Schwarzbach, Rachel Sun of Gunn High School felt a deep sense of aggravation and disappointment at the ruling. Sun’s resentment stems from “the fact that these same people claim to be our allies. I’m really proud of everyone who spoke and especially the survivors who shared their story to the board and I’m angry for them that the board chose not to take it seriously.” She remains optimistic because she will “still be leading an effort to incorporate comprehensive consent education and more protective policies under Title IX within PAUSD.” Sun’s final input on the decision reflects on how she will be protesting the decision, “In response to today’s vote we’ll be doing everything we can to fight the county’s decision, protesting, writing postcards, whatever it takes.”
(Sources: SCCgov website)