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Student journalists say adviser censored reporting on sexual assault

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Student journalists say adviser censored reporting on sexual assault

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Alaina Fox holds a copy of El Gato, the student newspaper of Los Gatos High School, at the school campus in Los Gatos on July 21
Alaina Fox holds a copy of El Gato, the student newspaper of Los Gatos High School, at the school campus in Los Gatos on July 21, 2021
(Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Friday, August 13, 2021

Alaina Fox, who graduated from Los Gatos High School this summer, says the team working on her school newspaper, El Gato News, felt like a family. Students would stay after school until 7 or 8 in the evening on press week to get the paper done. Fox says the publication adviser, Doug Garrett, was well-liked and respected, bringing in food and snacks, checking in with them and joking around.

Fox loved reporting on local news.

“Because those are unique stories and you get to speak to the people involved and write a piece that if you're not writing, it's possible nobody is,” she said.

But she says her opinion of Garrett gradually shifted last school year when students began to face backlash for the stories they wanted to tell. According to six student reporters who spoke to KQED, Garrett prevented reporters from reporting or publishing certain investigative and opinion pieces about sexual harassment or assault for the school newspaper.

“I think the main word that comes to mind is betrayal,” Fox said. “I trusted him and believed in him deeply.”

Garrett did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When asked for his response to students who said they were censored, he wrote, “There is no story here.”

Many of the pieces the students wanted to write were tied in some way to a #MeToo movement that began on campus last summer. That student-led movement began when a rising sophomore posted on Instagram last July that she had been raped by a fellow student. Students also started a group called From Survivors, For Survivors (FSFS) to push for policy changes and greater accountability at the school.

Fox was horrified by the number of disclosures, but also inspired by the students who were speaking out.

“It was one of those things where I felt like, 'That doesn't happen at our school, that happens at other places.' I was distanced from the problem and so I couldn't see it at the time," she said.

The main entrance to Los Gatos High School is empty during summer vacation on July 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
El Gato published a piece in July 2020 about dozens of Los Gatos High students who were coming forward as survivors of sexual assault, some of which was perpetrated by fellow students. Soon after that, another newspaper staffer wrote an opinion piece that criticized comments that the school’s former interim principal, Paul Robinson, made during an interview with the paper about the movement.

According to a screenshot from the messaging app Slack shared with KQED, Garrett wrote that he was concerned the piece did not belong as an opinion article in El Gato.

"Remember he is BRAND NEW and stepping into the role, and us writing a 'gotcha' piece after he voluntarily sat down for the interview is really bad form,” Garrett wrote.

Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District Superintendent Mike Grove also did not respond to questions related to claims students were censored. He issued a written statement that the district works to create an open environment where students and advisers work collaboratively to challenge each other as part of the journalistic process.

“Although not always perfect, it has worked because we are constantly reflecting on the process and providing our students with the necessary resources and guidance that allows them to lead the decision-making in the student newsroom, including guidance that maintains journalistic integrity to ensure the pursuit of truth based on facts."

Then, in November, Fox wrote an editorial piece about anti-harassment training given to Los Gatos High School students. She found Garrett's edits worrying. In her draft, she criticized the lesson as outdated and ineffective, and described an “insidious rape culture that plagues LGHS.” Garrett, according to documents shared with KQED, said the phrasing was problematic and asked that she change “insidious rape culture” to “culture of silence.”

“I still don’t understand what the problem is, other than it’s controversial, but the newspaper’s purpose is not to avoid controversy,” Fox said. “It’s to write truthfully.”

In the editorial, Fox also contended that the lesson should have included gender-neutral pronouns, to which Garrett responded: “This is still a shift that is happening — sorry, but that's too far.”

El Gato had also published a short piece about a video documentary posted on Instagram in January. The video, which now has over 94,000 views, was made by a recent alum, Natalie Brooks, about the school’s #MeToo movement. The piece included a link to the documentary. Students said Garrett took the piece down soon after it was posted, saying it was too opinionated. 

Allegations of a Rape Culture on Campus

This was all happening amid rising tensions between student organizers and members of the high school football team. Los Gatos is a wealthy Silicon Valley town, and some students said that privilege contributed to a culture where young athletes were allowed to get away with abuse.

Over the summer, one school alum, Abbi Berry, emailed all Los Gatos High School staff, saying she could not "in good conscience allow for the current culture propagated by the LGHS Football Team to continue to put female students at risk."

Berry wrote that many of the boys she was warned about in high school were on the football team.

Megan Farrell, the district Title IX coordinator who handles misconduct complaints, said in an interview with KQED earlier this year that it can be difficult to determine whether a certain campus-wide culture exists.

Farrell said the district formed a committee of students, parents and administrators to address some of those concerns, and launched an inquiry into whether the district has a culture that allows abuse to continue. She also said the district hired a consultant focused on restorative justice to give community members affected by these issues a chance to talk.

Finding Other Platforms

Casey Kamali, a Los Gatos High School alum, launched her own podcast to give students a space to talk about mental health issues. (Courtesy of Casey Kamali)
Los Gatos students had long been finding their own ways to try to make their concerns public and create space for students to support one another. Before Casey Kamali graduated from Los Gatos High School in 2020, she started her own podcast called "Mind in Pieces." The idea of it was to give her peers a space to talk about mental health issues.

Kamali says at least half of the girls she spoke to for the podcast described experiences with harassment and assault.

"It was pretty apparent to me immediately how much of an issue this was and how pervasive of an issue this was," she said. "I wouldn’t say it surprised me, sadly. I just really wanted to make sure that I was making them feel heard and safe and like they weren't going to be interrogated on the legitimacy of what they were saying.”

Students are also sharing their experiences online. Over 130 students and alums have shared experiences with harassment and assault on the @metoo.losgatos Instagram page.

One alum, Eliza Potts, shared her experience with assault by a fellow student on the FSFS Instagram account. She says she also reported the assault to the school, and says school staff offered to make sure she did not attend class with the perpetrator. But she says she didn’t have classes with him anyway.

“Social media feels like the only platform where we can get our voices out unfiltered,” she said. “It was nice to be able to put myself out there and not have to worry about censoring things in fear of ruining the school's reputation.”

A Complicated Assignment

Since the national #MeToo movement began, journalism teachers and even legal experts around the country have wrestled with guiding students in how best to report on sexual assault

The football field and track at Los Gatos High School is empty during summer vacation on July 21, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
“These last two years have been professionally, without question, the most difficult of my life,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel with Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides advice to student journalists. He gets a lot of questions from these journalists looking to cover stories related to sexual assault.

“I'll try and help young journalists stay out of trouble. #MeToo reporting, it is an advanced level of reporting. You don’t get tougher journalism assignments,” Hiestand said.

One 2017 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Kansas found that female students are also more likely to be told by school staff not to discuss certain topics in school-run media outlets.

Hiestand will often encourage students to keep working with advisers and principals, but if that fails he sometimes advises students to publish elsewhere.

“We’re going to use the rights that we have, but at some point we have to say, ‘We have other ways to get this information out and there’s nothing you can do about it,’ ” he said.

The Football Assignment

When Doug Garrett told students they could not publish the opinion piece written in response to the interview with their former interim principal, they posted it on the From Survivors, For Survivors Instagram page.

"When we can't publish something, we just put it on our Instagram account," said Wren, another Los Gatos alum and former editor with El Gato News.

KQED is using a pseudonym to protect Wren's identity, because she says some of her classmates have faced threats for bringing attention to sexual assault on campus.

Student reporters say the tension reached a breaking point in January. Garrett had assigned a project to interview the football community on how they viewed the #MeToo movement on campus. Garrett sent the journalism students a list of dozens of current and former football players and parents, suggesting they interview some of them. Wren says she was stunned, and worried.

“‘So let me get this straight. We’re going to be interviewing people and amplifying their voices,’” Wren said she recalled thinking at the time. “'We’ve never been able to amplify the voices of survivors, we’ve never been able to produce our own opinion articles about this.'”

The reporters say they began discussing their concerns and how to proceed. Wren says there were alleged perpetrators on that list, and she was worried about the mental well-being and physical safety of her classmates and fellow reporters.

A print copy of El Gato News, the student-led paper for Los Gatos High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
“Someone from that crowd had said the people who were part of FSFS belonged under the wheel of a car and they accelerated their car at one of our organizers,” Wren said. “So that was someone on that list.”

Nevertheless, the reporters say they began working on the project.

But weeks later, when students asked about the status of the project, Garrett sent them an email that said, “At this point we cannot move forward.”

“We were definitely confused, and we asked, like, why aren't we doing this? He gave a very strange reason, which basically boiled down to the same thing he's been saying a lot, which is for legal reasons,” Wren said.

In that same email exchange, students were also told they could no longer move forward with a piece they were investigating on sexually explicit hand signals used by members of the football team. They ended up publishing that piece on the Los Gatos Patch, an online community news site.

Bigger Than the School Newspaper

But students like Wren say they still wish they could have published their pieces in their school paper. She is no longer considering a career in journalism.

“This is heartbreaking for me to say this. And I don’t want to pin it all on the relationship that I have with my adviser, but that definitely discouraged me from pursuing it,” she said. “I definitely don’t want to do it as a professional career anymore.”

Alaina Fox, the former editor-in-chief, says she still loves journalism even if her experience with the paper has been painful. She and others say they’ve chosen to share their experience now because they want next year’s student journalists to be empowered to write the stories that matter to them.

"I don't have much faith in established institutions or authority figures right now," Fox said. "I have a lot of trust in a group of teenagers who are really committed to making things right."

This article was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

[This story was originally published by KQED.]

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