This story contains discussion of topics that may be triggering, such as sexual assault and harassment.
On Aug. 25, 2020, former math tutor and Palo Alto resident Mark Hodes was arrested by the Palo Alto Police Department after two girls that he had tutored came forward with accounts that he had molested them. Since then, Hodes has been charged with 55 counts of lewd and lascivious acts with children, and a total of 17 girls have come forward to share their experiences. Although he will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars, the lasting effect of his actions will linger in Palo Alto for years to come.
One survivor of Hodes, a senior who has asked to remain unidentified, recounts going to Hodes for help during their sophomore year and experiencing inappropriate behavior. “I noticed little things that he did that made me feel weird and uncomfortable,” they said. “They were so subtle that I thought maybe he was just a touchy person or didn’t understand personal space. He was in his 70s, and lots of old guys who mean no harm do weird things sometimes.”
Encouraged by the improvement in their academics, the student continued going to the sessions until they became distressing. “During the short period that had already passed, my math grade improved because of his help,” they said. “[My family and I] decided that I should keep getting help from him. Every session became progressively more uncomfortable, though, and he did things that were clearly inappropriate, so I quit.”
The senior’s story, though, isn’t uncommon; in reality, it’s emblematic of the larger issue of abuse of power dynamics in society—a topic that has recently gravitated into the mainstream with frequent conversations on grooming, or creating predatory relationships with children that leave them vulnerable to exploitation and sexual abuse. Title IX Club co-president senior Dana Souter focuses the club’s lessons on topics like these during their bimonthly meetings. These meetings aim to teach students how to create policies to protect survivors of sexual harassment and violence. “In relationships with a significant age difference, such as between a kid and an adult, it’s easy for there to be an imbalance of power because of the respect that is supposed to come with being older than someone else,” Souter said.
According to Souter, the academic pressure in Palo Alto can often make students feel as if they are stuck in uncomfortable situations. “Especially with the area we live in, there’s so much pressure to get these amazing grades,” she said. “If something can negatively impact your ability to succeed academically, you want to do everything you
can to avoid that.” Every year, Gunn staff must go through a series of training courses on subjects such as mandated reporting, pathogens and suicide prevention.
This year, staff saw an addition to their mandated reporter training. The addition was on the topic of grooming. All teachers are mandated reporters, or people who are legally obligated to report any suspected child abuse to the proper law enforcement. The new course was intended to train teachers to spot the signs of grooming.
Assistant Principal Courtney Carlomagno, who handles Title IX cases and reporting at Gunn, encourages students to contact teachers and staff for support or assistance when in need. “Whether it’s in our jurisdiction or not, the administration will provide you the support and steps that you need to navigate what to do,” she said. “So even if there’s nothing we can follow up here, we can get you connected to those who can help you—whether that’s the Palo Alto Police Department or someone else.”
Additionally, the foundation “OneLove,” whose mission is to educate young people about healthy and unhealthy relationships, will be holding two training sessions for all students in May on identifying and avoiding abuse. “One will be all about healthy relationships, ranging from personal relationships with peers to navigating those types of relationships with adults,” Carlomagno said. “The second one is going to be about how to report or bring forward anything that occurs because we are still finding that there are gaps in a student’s knowledge of how to bring
When approaching new situations, Carlomagno advises students not to be afraid to make new relationships, but to stay aware of potential red flags. “When you engage with anyone, you should assume positive intent so that you can create relationships,” she said. “But a lot of the times when a relationship is off, we definitely feel it inside our gut.”
The anonymous senior echoed Carlomagno’s sentiment and encouraged students in similar positions to take direct action and trust their instincts. “In my experience, if I had listened to my gut feeling at the start, I would not have been hurt the way I was,” they said. “If someone makes you uncomfortable in the slightest way, listen to yourself, remove yourself from that situation if you can and tell someone you trust. It shouldn’t be our job to take precautions because other people’s wrongdoings are not our responsibility.”
Speaking up about assaults is certainly a daunting task, but the senior hopes that talking about what happened to them can help others in the same situation. “I was walking around campus while thinking about this experience and realized that it had never occurred to me that someone on this campus may have had the exact same tutor I did and may be walking around with a similar traumatic experience,” they said. “And if not the same abuser, then they may have the same experience with a different perpetrator.”
Further eduction to students and staff about abuse and reporting is important to implement every year. “We need to have the information out there continuously about how to report,” Carlomagno said. “You could hear something as a freshman, but then have something happen junior year, and that information is needed again.”
For more resources, call the National Sexual Assault hotline at (800) 656-4673 or visit rainn.org.