Stanford offers one-of-a-kind class on sexual assault | News | Palo Alto Online |


Stanford offers one-of-a-kind class on sexual assault

Three-week immersive class aims to educate the next generation of student advocates

In 1979, a group of Stanford University students founded the Rape Education Project, working to promote awareness around and discussion of campus sexual assault. Over years of activism, they created an hour-long film called "Working Against Rape," led discussions on sexual violence in dorms, held educational workshops, printed booklets, invited speakers, put together a two-week Rape Awareness Series that focused on acquaintance rape, and in 1988 conducted a 2,400-student study that found that one in three Stanford women and one in eight Stanford men reported having been pressured into having sex against their wills. The study led to the creation of the university's first task force on sexual assault.

Again, in 2014, a group of students, led by a student survivor, rose up to advocate for better handling of sexual assault on campus. They called for reform through rallies, in meetings with administrators, on social media and in messages of protest scrawled in chalk on campus quads. Their clamor for change, too, helped spark the creation of another task force devoted to reviewing and reforming Stanford's processes and procedures around sexual assault. This task force recently released a series of recommendations, most notable and radical among them a charge that the university make expulsion the "expected" consequence for any student found responsible for sexual assault.

Stanford Law School professor Michele Dauber -- who has been Stanford's most staunch and vocal advocate for sexual-assault reform for many years, helping to create the university's dedicated process for adjudicating sexual-assault cases, supporting student survivors and serving as an oft-quoted expert on the topic in local and national media -- is hoping that a one-of-a-kind class she's teaching this month will help to continue this history of student activism by educating the next generation of student advocates on sexual-assault issues.

"One in Five: The Law, Policy and Politics of Campus Sexual Assault" is a three-week, immersive class offered for the first time this year to rising sophomores as part of Stanford's Sophomore College, a residential summer program during which groups of 12 to 15 students "engage in intense academic exploration," the program's website reads.

Sophomore College classes focus on everything from theater (students spend 13 days in Ashland, Oregon, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) to marine biology (which includes meeting conservationists, filmmakers, politicians and land-use planners, as well as camping in Big Sur).

When the chair of the Stanford Faculty Senate asked Dauber to teach a Sophomore College class on campus sexual assault last fall, she was initially skeptical. What students would want to spend the last three weeks of their summer talking about sexual violence when they could be camping in Big Sur? But the prospect of educating young Stanford students about an issue that has for decades been driven by student activism won out.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a lot of education with students who are at the beginning, basically, of their undergraduate careers at Stanford ... so that they might form the core of students working on this issue over the next several years," Dauber said in an interview with the Weekly.

The class is an all-encompassing, in-depth crash course on campus sexual assault for the 12 students enrolled, only two of whom are male. Dauber said that more than 50 students ranked "One in Five" as their top Sophomore College choice.

"That shows the need for education on this subject at Stanford," she said. "To me, if there are that many students who would rank this as a high choice ... we need to do more education with our freshmen."

The class began last week with Dauber giving lectures on criminal laws around sexual assault; federal gender-equity law Title IX; the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights' Title IX investigations of colleges and universities, including Stanford; Stanford's disciplinary process and sanctioning statistics; the history of the university's efforts to address sexual assault; analysis of national studies on campus sexual violence; discussion about the roles that fraternities, athletics and alcohol play in campus culture; and more.

Required summer reading included "Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men" by Michael Kimmel and "Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law" by nationally renowned legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon, who also spent three and a half hours with the class as a guest speaker last Friday. Over the course of the class, the students are being asked to pore through more readings, survey data, court cases, news articles, videos and even congressional testimony.

The students also spent the first week with various guest speakers involved with the issue locally, including Stanford Chief of Police Laura Wilson; Luis Ramos, who leads the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office sexual assault team; and Michael Armstrong, a Stanford alumnus and Palo Alto criminal defense attorney who has represented many Stanford students accused of sexual assault, including former all-star swimmer Brock Turner, who was arrested for allegedly raping an unconscious woman on campus in January.

Angela Exson, the first director of Stanford's Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) office, and Alejandro Martinez, the senior associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), also spoke with the students about past and present campus climate around sexual assault, consent and the challenges of making prevention education impactful.

The second week of the class included travel to New York City and Washington, D.C., where the students met with some of the movement's top activists, a New York Times Magazine journalist and Catherine Lhamon, the assistant secretary of education for the Office for Civil Rights.

The resources that Stanford provided to support this kind of class -- one that does not exist at any other college or university in the nation, Dauber said -- sends the message that tackling sexual assault is important to the university. This message takes on more meaning at a time when "survivors have come forward across the country with harrowing stories of assault followed by an insensitive or indifferent response from college administrators," the class syllabus reads.

"One way you can tell how something is important to a institution is how well-resourced it is," Dauber told the Weekly. "A tenured faculty (member) teaching this topic sends a message to students: 'This is important; this is real; this is significant.' ... Bringing this into the core academic mission of the university is how we're really going to have an impact. That's what I think we need more of."

Dauber's teaching of "One in Five" -- named for the oft-cited statistic on the number of women who will be sexually assaulted during college -- coincides with intense scrutiny of Stanford's own handling of sexual assault. This was ignited last June by Leah Francis, then a 21-year-old senior, who alleged the university mishandled her sexual-assault case, taking twice as long as the 60 days recommended under Title IX and imposing what she saw as slap-on-the-wrist sanctions on another student found responsible for sexually assaulting her through force.

The 2014-15 school year also saw the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity lose its house indefinitely following a sexual-harassment investigation; accusations that Joe Lonsdale, Stanford alumnus, mentor and co-founder of Palo Alto software company Palantir, had sexually assaulted and abused a former girlfriend during a yearlong relationship that took place while she was a Stanford undergraduate; the arrest of Brock Turner after two witnesses found him on top of an unconscious woman outside a university fraternity late one January night; the university's sanctioning of the Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band (LSJUMB) following a Title IX investigation; and the resignation of the university's first-ever dedicated Title IX coordinator, Catherine Criswell, just last month.

In February, Stanford also joined the fast-growing list of colleges and universities across the country under federal investigation for Title IX violations. The Office for Civil Rights opened the investigation in response to a complaint filed in December by Francis, who has alleged the university failed to promptly and equitably provide a response to and resolution for the sexual-assault report she filed in January 2014. San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization that supports women's rights, is representing Francis along with three other women affiliated with Stanford, according to a fundraising postcard the organization sent out in August.

The Office for Civil Rights opened a second Title IX investigation at Stanford in May, according to a list released by the federal agency.

Many of the students in Dauber's class said they were aware of these current events but didn't have a deep understanding of the prevalence or implications of sexual assault.

"I think one of the biggest issues here -- I know it was for me -- (is) just plain ignorance about ... what's going on," student Matt Baiza said in an interview. "To find out that one in five women during their time in college are either sexually assaulted or (the victim of) attempted sexual assault ... is mind-blowing."

Student Alexis Kallen, who plans to become an international human rights lawyer with an emphasis on women's rights, said the class has been "incredibly eye opening." She was particularly surprised at statistics around date rape on college campuses and has spent time researching why women with disabilities are more likely to be sexually assaulted.

She's also in a Stanford sorority, and said it's hard to ignore the statistics Dauber to presented the class around the role that fraternities play in sexual assault. Attendance at fraternity parties raises a student's risk of alcohol- and drug-enabled sexual assault by 38 percent, according to a 2007 National Institute of Justice study. Alcohol is also a significant factor: 62 percent of victims in this study had been drinking just prior to the incident.

"I do enjoy Greek life but it's true," she said. "That's somewhere where rape culture is harvested."

But, she said, there are many within the Greek system at Stanford working to "change the culture from the inside." Sigma Nu, for example, collaborated with the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program this spring to put together a gender-issues speaker series that ended with an event in March called "Defining Manhood: What Can Men at Stanford Do?"

Baiza, a political science and sociology major, said he wasn't surprised to be one of only two male students in the class. Dauber, too, said she was disappointed at the gender breakdown, but hopes that more men will sign up for the class in future years.

"I think sexual assault in general -- I don't think it's a conversation that guys are having," Baiza said. "You see a lot of women circling this issue."

Dauber hopes that her class will help change the perception that sexual assault is primarily a women's issue, both academically and personally. The class discussed last week the importance of peer influence in shifting male culture, and the wheels immediately started turning in Baiza's mind.

By the third day of class, he was starting to form the idea for a peer-led student group that would travel around campus, visiting dorms and other spaces to talk about sexual assault.

"Everybody would agree that racism is bad. Everybody would agree that human trafficking is bad. Everybody agrees, I would think, in general, that sexual assault, committing acts of violence in that manner, is bad," Baiza said. "The problem is that people may say things but you don't see them actually taking action on it.

"I think it comes down to just the fact that bringing awareness, I know at least for myself, has made me more conscious about the things that I do, about the people that I'm around. ... now that I'm educated, I feel like I'm more responsible."

The Palo Alto Weekly has created an archive of past news articles, social media reaction and other content related to the ongoing sexual assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to

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24 people like this
Posted by We need this kind of education in our high schools
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 11, 2015 at 6:54 am

Kudos to Stanford for funding this important class. I wish I could have taken a course like this. As a parent I feel we need this kind of comprehensive education on sexual assault, Title IX, and various policies at the local, state, and federal level in our high schools. It is painfully obvious that our teachers, principals, and students all need a class like this one. Paly's social justice pathway should take on sexual assault as an issue and study it in depth.

14 people like this
Posted by Paly mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 11, 2015 at 11:59 am

Great idea, Paly could definitely use education for students, teachers and administrators about Title IX. The "rape culture" issue, Phil Winston being shuffled off to special education classroom after the district found him guilty of sexual harassment, etc. My daughter is a freshman this year and I would love her to be able to take a class about this, both for high school and college.

3 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 11, 2015 at 12:12 pm

[Post removed.]

1 person likes this
Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 11, 2015 at 12:22 pm

This is a much-needed class, and it’s nice to see the students appreciate the value in what they are learning and wanting to spread the word to other students. Hopefully other colleges will follow suit. I agree this is needed at the high-school level as well, for staff as well as students. I don’t get the feeling much of this topic is covered in the Living Skills class which might be a good place to start. All students would then receive the information since that is a required class (at least at Gunn it is). I worry if it is an elective then those students who might actually need the class more will avoid it.

5 people like this
Posted by FoodForThought
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2015 at 12:35 pm

The 1 in 5 statistic is flawed and leads to flawed decision making.

Here is some data:

From the Depart of Justice: "The rate of rape and sexual assault ... for students (6.1 per 1,000)".
Web Link

A thoughtful analysis of the original study:

Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 11, 2015 at 12:35 pm

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Gunn Mother
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2015 at 1:43 pm

I don't understand the complaints about this course. Its a class not a law.

I find the negative comments offensive and aggressive against exploring this type of material. Why so strong - you don't like the teacher but it comes across as an attack for the course.

My wish would be that there were more types of education available for our young adults to become educated about the topic.

3 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 11, 2015 at 2:10 pm

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by FoodForThought
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2015 at 2:11 pm

@Gunn Mother:

One core axiom of the course, "One in Five", is flawed. See the post above. From that flawed statistic flows a series of errors leading up to what can only be described as a mickey-mouse attempt to pass judgement.

Sexual assault is a crime and should be adjudicated in courts.

Harvard University's policy of sexual assault is such an overreach that professors from their own Law School had this to say: "Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused..." Web Link

Here is another from Penn Law School Professors: Web Link

3 people like this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 11, 2015 at 2:19 pm

>I find the negative comments offensive and aggressive against exploring this type of material. Why so strong - you don't like the teacher but it comes across as an attack for the course.

@ Gunn Mother: Do you believe that " the expectation of expulsion" is the appropriate action for an accusation of sexual assault? Or should there first be a legal system judgement? Would you like your son, if you have one, to face such an injustice?

3 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 11, 2015 at 2:56 pm

[Portion removed.] Practically everyone agrees sexual assault is horrible, but that will never justify the infringement on rights like Due Process.

8 people like this
Posted by Pro Title IX
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 11, 2015 at 2:57 pm

Stanford and PAUSD both need serious work to protect young women trying to get an education. Expulsion is definitely right for a private university and firing for a creepy principal or teacher. [Portion removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by FoodForThought
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 11, 2015 at 3:10 pm

Sexual assault is a crime. Expulsion should happen after a Court has determined whether a crime was committed.

Please read the position of 28 Harvard Law faculty on overreach in that school's attempt to comply with Title IX.

Just one example: "The absence of any adequate opportunity to discover the facts charged and to confront witnesses and present a defense at an adversary hearing.". Web Link

Imagine being judged and sentenced without getting an opportunity to present a defense.

Having University Title IX offices and officers adjudicate crimes is nonsensical on its face.

1 person likes this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 11, 2015 at 3:28 pm

Pro Title IX

Most people would agree with the "expectation of expulsion" as long as the charge is proven and the person charged is granted normal due process (due process in a criminal case). Of course, there should also be the "expectation of expulsion" in cases where the accuser lies as long as the charge is proven and the person charged is granted normal due process (due process in a criminal case). People found guilty based on an impartial and fair process should face consequences.

2 people like this
Posted by paly mom
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 11, 2015 at 5:19 pm

[Portion removed.] Classes like this one could be part of freshman orientation and link crew/leadership only.

Sad that the new paly parent needs a warning on every novel or textbook just in case their darling might be offended. Stop helecoptering and talk to your kids about rape and sex. Don"t require the school to do it for you.

[Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 11, 2015 at 5:33 pm

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Linda
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2015 at 6:37 pm

I'm not sure why this blog got so severely censored, because it was very interesting.

10 people like this
Posted by It Starts Quite Early
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Sep 12, 2015 at 9:20 am

We have experienced sexual harassment as early as fifth grade, when my daughter began to enter puberty.

To make matters worse, some cultures [portion removed] and especially Palo Alto have little to no respect for females, and do not see their behavior as harassment. Some actually believe that blonde girls are all of "loose" morals! Really? At age ten? The district leaders need to make sure that such behavior is not tolerated here.

I hate to think that my daughter is in for a lifetime of this harassment!

5 people like this
Posted by Red
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 13, 2015 at 9:25 pm

Red is a registered user.

Hurray! Stanford is right on tract in offering the classes on sexual assault and harassment. Such a course series may well benefit students of the PAUSD also. Proper and respectful attitudes and behavior between the sexes must be learned and cultivated early at home and in school.

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