Abbi Berry, who graduated from Los Gatos High School in 2018, speaks during a rally over sexual abuse on campus. (Courtesy of R. Hansen)
When most schools across California shut down last year, teenagers were stuck at home. For many of them, that meant months alone to reflect on experiences of trauma in high school. But they didn’t all keep that pain to themselves. Instead, young people created dozens of Instagram accounts for students and alums to share their stories.
Linh is one of those students. We're only using her middle name to protect her privacy. She's a senior at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego County, and she runs an Instagram account called @metooinsd where students and alums anonymously share experiences of harassment and assault.
She said part of what motivated her to run the account is her own experience as a survivor. She said she was sexually assaulted by an ex-boyfriend, but didn't recognize how damaging the relationship was until after it was over.
"I was gaslighted to the point where I thought, 'He loves me' or whatever, which obviously is not true," she said. "But when you're in it like that, it feels like it is true."
Linh said she still had to see him in band even after he was reported. The ex-boyfriend denied the allegations, and said he was never disciplined.
"There were times where, you know, there was a concert and I walk into the storage room. He's right there and I just left," she said. "I couldn't be there. I still had to see him, in the hallways, in the library, I still had to see him."
The account she runs has helped Linh heal, and feel less alone. She said she's gotten threats for running the account, but it's too important to stop now.
"If I stop, that's letting them win, and I refuse to do that," she said.
In an email, Maureen Magee, spokesperson with the San Diego Unified School District, said the district has made police aware of the account, and that allegations made anonymously are difficult to investigate. Magee said the district has also worked with student leaders to get the word out about how to recognize and report abuse.
There are dozens of accounts like the San Diego Instagram page throughout California, including one for students in the affluent Silicon Valley town of Los Gatos.
A senior there, Natalie Brooks, made a film about the #MeToo movement happening at her school, and the backlash students faced for speaking out.
"LG is idyllic, perfect teens in perfect clothes from perfect families. And don't forget the money. But like most seemingly perfect things, you can't see the cracks . . . yet," the film begins.
A post by one 15-year-old student, Mia Lozoya, inspired others to share their stories, and eventually set up their own Instagram account. Since then, more than 100 students and alums have posted their experiences with harassment and assault on the account.
But student organizers say there was still a lot of pushback in response to the attention they were bringing to the football team.
A Los Gatos alum, Abbi Berry, saw the post from Lozoya, and wrote an email describing how the culture of the football team allowed players to continue to abuse young women.
"And my mom didn't want me to send it. She was like, you could get in trouble or you could get this backlash. And I remember literally being like, I don't care, this is an issue," she said. "And I was so angry. I was just so — I was just livid. I was enraged."
She sent the email to all Los Gatos High School staff, and wrote that the entire community was complicit in these issues. She signed it as a survivor.
One teacher and football coach hit "reply all," and responded. He wrote: “Wrong. If this young lady has had something bad happen to her in the past, she should take it up with the individual who is responsible."
Berry said that confirmed her biggest fear that people would invalidate her statement because she had signed the email as a survivor. She was disappointed to see teachers taking sides.
The teacher did not respond to requests for comment.
Berry is worried about the students who’ve faced backlash and lost friends for speaking out.
"I was just really scared for them," she said, "I know how much reputation counts in high school."
Megan Farrell is the Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District’s Title IX coordinator, and she handles sexual misconduct claims. She said there are many reasons young people are reluctant to turn to their schools to report abuse. They might not be ready to tell their parents, or want to talk to police, who schools have an obligation to tell.
There were no Title IX complaints filed against students in the district in the 2019-2020 school year, and only two this school year.
Farrell said the district set up an anonymous tip line in response to the anonymous Instagram account.
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"So that students would have another outlet to reach out and provide any kind of information that they needed to provide to us. And anonymous reports are difficult to investigate," she said. "But if we have some information, at least we can go down the road and start looking into a matter."
The district had also launched an inquiry into whether the district has a culture that allows abuse to continue, and hired a consultant focused on restorative justice to give community members impacted by these issues a chance to talk.
Abbi Berry, the Los Gatos alum, said she knows real change will take a long time and a lot of persistence. And she said if nothing else, the online movement has at least started a conversation in way that wasn’t happening before.
"Regardless of whether we may not have been able to change policies, or moved mountains for the school, we got the town talking about it," she said. "We definitely shocked the town, and I think it’ll change, even a little bit, for the better."
Over in Mira Mesa, Linh is still running the San Diego account. Her mom said she’s proud of how much she’s seen her daughter grow. We’re not using her name to protect her daughter's identity.
"I really am grateful that she found the strength to help other people. In middle school and high school, she retreated a bit, but in our household she’s always had a voice. And I think she’s finding it again," her mom said.
Linh is encouraging others at her school to start a club to address sexual assault on campus. The students leading these efforts hope the support networks they’ve built online can find a way to continue in person when more students return to school.