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Stanford students press administrators in town hall on sexual assault

Provost Persis Drell speaks to sexual harassment, fraternity culture, Chanel Miller plaque

Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) President Shanta Katipamula, far right, moderates a panel of university administrators at an ASSU-hosted town hall on sexual assault on Tuesday, Dec. 3. The administrators, from left to right, are: Lauren Schoenthaler, senior associate vice provost of Institutional Equity and Access; Vaden Health Center Executive Director James Jacobs; Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole; Laraine Zappert, director of the Sexual Harassment Policy Office; Stanford Police Chief Laura Wilson; and Provost Persis Drell. Photo by Elena Kadvany.

Top Stanford University administrators faced frank questions about sexual misconduct from students at a town hall on Tuesday, including the university's responsibility to protect and inform students about faculty members accused of sexual harassment and the root causes of campus sexual violence.

The town hall, hosted by the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), was held in part to discuss Stanford's third annual Title IX report released on Monday. In the wake of the new report, several reported druggings and sexual crimes on campus this fall and the October release of survey data that showed high rates of sexual misconduct, students were clamoring "for an opportunity to initiate a direct and honest conversation with administrators about sexual violence on our campus," said senior Remy Gordon, the student government's executive chief of staff.

Provost Persis Drell started by acknowledging students' frustration with the rise in sexual violence at Stanford, which she said she shares.

"Many of you feel betrayed, angry, vulnerable, discriminated against, distrustful, perhaps alone," she told the full room of undergraduate and graduate students and staff. "I don't think we will achieve the needed cultural change if we in the room view each other as enemies. ... I think we must be allies. That's because pointing out problems is not enough. We need constructive solutions."

Drell was joined by Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole; Laraine Zappert, director of the Sexual Harassment Policy Office; Stanford Police Chief Laura Wilson; Vaden Health Center Executive Director James Jacobs; and Lauren Schoenthaler, senior associate vice provost of Institutional Equity and Access.

In response to a question, Drell indicated Stanford's interest in making a significant policy change related to sexual violence: amending the university's official definition of sexual assault, which has been decried as overly narrow. Drell said that Stanford hopes the change to be "much more consistent with what would be considered national norms."

Currently, university policy defines sexual assault as an unwanted sexual act perpetrated by force, violence, duress, menace, fear or fraud; or when a person is incapacitated or unaware of the nature of the act, due to being unconscious, asleep and/or intoxicated. In 2015, critics argued the definition distorted the results of a campus climate survey that showed 4.7% of female undergraduates had been sexually assaulted during their time at Stanford.

The new definition, Drell said, would be simply an act of unwanted penetration.

Stanford cannot change the policy without approval by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Stanford signed a resolution agreement with the federal agency last year to bring to an end a three-year investigation into the university's handling of campus sexual violence. Since the new presidential administration began, however, "nothing has been going through the Office for Civil Rights," said Drell, who suspects that new federal regulations expected to be released in the new year will contain a standard definition colleges and universities will be directed to use for sexual assault.

On Tuesday, administrators spoke to a cultural change surrounding sexual harassment in academic settings that has not yet spread to sexual assault.

Zappert said that "overt" sexual harassment has mostly dissipated at Stanford but more subtle harassing behavior "below the water line" persists.

Sexual harassment involving power imbalances at Stanford "exists but it has gotten better," Drell said, partly by "calling it out, making it visible, talking about it, having policies that then sanction it and having individuals see in at least some cases there are consequences."

With sexual violence, however, "we have not called that out in our academic setting long enough for me to feel like I have a deep understanding of the source," Drell said. "I do believe it is deeply cultural. I do believe it goes to the agency that individuals have."

A question about the university's responsibility to protect future students from faculty members it bans for sexual harassment or assault prompted Drell to explain why she sometimes decides a "quiet," confidential separation from the university is preferable than having a victim participate in the faculty discipline process. The discipline process is "extraordinarily difficult" for the person making allegations against a faculty member, Drell said. It has not been used in 20 years, the provost said, but during that time the university has separated "many" faculty members for misconduct.

"It is complex and very fraught because there are many balancing priorities," she said of disciplining faculty members. "I actually think the ground on this is changing and changing pretty rapidly."

Administrators encouraged students who have experienced sexual violence to report it to help Stanford better address the issue. But some questions signaled students' distrust of the process: one person's fear that the Title IX Office wouldn't respond properly to a teacher-adviser who had raped them, or another's questioning of the university's failure to notify computer science students about a lecturer in their department who resigned this fall amid a Title IX investigation into alleged sexual misconduct.

One student indignantly asked why sexual assault-specific counseling services are primarily available to students who have experienced such violence on campus, rather than those who might be struggling with a prior assault.

"It feels like the support for survivors is deeply broken," the student said. "We are people. We are not a single incident."

Another question submitted anonymously online probed a deep-seated debate at college campuses across the nation: the role that fraternities play within the culture of sexual assault.

"I am a believer that fraternities can be quite beneficial," Drell said before pausing. "That's probably stronger than I want to say. Let me rephrase that: There are students who benefit from the fraternity bonding, closeness experience."

She said she takes a "hard line" on fraternities that violate university policies, pointing to a decision last year to take away Kappa Alpha's house for two years for allowing some members to live in the house without paying room and board to the university.

Administrators cited a voluntary prevention program and relevant courses that some fraternities have taken advantage of as ways Stanford is working to address what one student described as "toxic masculinity" in fraternities and other male spaces on campus.

Another issue that has galvanized students this fall is the university's rejection of a chosen quote for a campus plaque to honor Chanel Miller, the young woman who was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner on campus in 2015. Drell last month announced the reversal of that decision and said at the town hall that they have reached agreement on installing a plaque with her initially proposed words. Drell was vague on other terms of the agreement, which she said was "along the lines of what we hoped for."

The university will "(get) things in place" in late January, she said.

The town hall came to a close before the administrators could respond to more than 50 questions submitted anonymously online, which Drell agreed to answer at a later date. Student government leaders said they would share the university's responses online.

Drell urged students to proactively help the university move the needle on sexual violence. "We need your participation and we need your help and most of all, we need your ideas on how we change the culture," she said.

One female student pushed back.

"I totally agree that we need more conversation but it's preaching to the choir to tell the people who are here that we need a conversation," she said, adding that the administration has the power to spur change through policies or mandatory education on sexual violence.

"Asking for students to singlehandedly lead this conversation, led by survivors," she said, "is a lot."

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Comments

10 people like this
Posted by Stanford alum
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 4, 2019 at 11:58 am

It's time for Stanford to own up to the high level of sexual assault taking place at Stanford. I'm continually surprised by Stanford's reticence to take a leadership role in managing sexual assault, e.g., basically Stanford asking sexual assault survivors to take the lead. No, Stanford administration - you need to take the lead. There was a time (when I was there) when Stanford took the lead on tough issues, and led the nation's colleges in making meaningful change on social issues. Now Stanford seems reticent to upset certain constituents and is lagging way behind on addressing sexual assault. Be a leader, Stanford!


4 people like this
Posted by Jack Meof
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 12:00 pm

[Post removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by The Way Back Machine
a resident of Stanford
on Dec 4, 2019 at 12:19 pm

Janis Joplin sang about a gender-related 'imbalance' back in the late 1960s with Big Brother & the Holding Company with a song entitled 'Women Is Losers'.

Nothing has changed in the past 50 years.


15 people like this
Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2019 at 6:00 pm

Question is a registered user.

I still don’t get why Stanford has to have its own definition of sexual assault that’s different from, say, Palo Alto’s or the rest of California’s. And why Stanford has to have its own adjudication “court” made up of students & faculty to “try” these cases. Why not let the Justice system handle these cases as it does for all other Americans?

If the answer is “because the judicial system is broken with respect to sexual assault,” then the solution surely isn’t to invent your own judicial system and change your definition of assault. I don’t think that’s how law is supposed to work in this country, but am open to being educated.

I’d have thought it would be like this: For anything non-criminal, let the University adjudicate (e.g. cheating, honor code violations). For anything criminal, leave it to the proper courts.

Thanks in advance for thoughtful responses.


3 people like this
Posted by xogocace
a resident of Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
on Dec 4, 2019 at 6:31 pm

Question, "If the answer is “because the judicial system is broken with respect to sexual assault,” then the solution surely isn’t to invent your own judicial system and change your definition of assault." Who says that's not the solution? Especially if your definition of broken means that the judicial system isn't as fair/favorable to women as you think it should be. Many of Stanford's judicial system procedures would be abhorrent from the standpoint of normal legal procedure, eg the standard of proof, ex parte hearings, no right of confrontation, etc (and indeed, public universities aren't allowed to stack the deck against the accused to quite such an excess). Stanford main defense has always been that the stakes are lower in these proceedings, expulsion/suspension/etc versus prison time. But it has been open that it is very lax about procedure. And of course many argue that it there are still too many protections for the accused, as this article shows.


8 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2019 at 6:32 pm

Does sexual assault happen more often at Stanford, or is reported more often by Stanford students? If anything, I would think it would happen less often at a school like Stanford. I guess being excelling academically has nothing to do with character.


5 people like this
Posted by xogocace
a resident of University South
on Dec 4, 2019 at 6:37 pm

"Provost Persis Drell started by acknowledging students' frustration with the rise in sexual violence at Stanford, which she said she shares."

Is there a rise?

"In the wake of the new report, several reported druggings and sexual crimes on campus this fall and the October release of survey data that showed high rates of sexual misconduct,"

"high rates" doesn't amount to a "rise". "high rates" is a subjective description. A "rise" is objective. Hence my question.

"Zappert said that "overt" sexual harassment has mostly dissipated at Stanford but more subtle harassing behavior "below the water line" persists. Sexual harassment involving power imbalances at Stanford "exists but it has gotten better,""

Well that sounds like the opposite of a "rise".


7 people like this
Posted by Another Stanford Alum
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 4, 2019 at 8:18 pm

[Post removed; off topic.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Not a Stanfurd Alum
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 4, 2019 at 9:39 pm

[Post removed; off topic.]


7 people like this
Posted by JR
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 5, 2019 at 7:50 am

Stanford has a rampant sexual assault problem and intends to paper over the issue, rather than making systemic changes that would help to solve the problem. Stanford is not interested in creating a safe campus and they aren't even interested in improving education. They are solely concerned with growing their $26 billion endowment and expanding their unchecked influence.

One day maybe a donor will tell Stanford "I'm not cutting you a million dollar check this year until you protect students". On that day Stanford might actually make a real effort, not one day before.


12 people like this
Posted by charles reilly
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2019 at 8:55 am

In all cases of "assault" sexual or otherwise, alleged victims MUST call the Palo Alto Police Dept. No exceptions. Or, Campus Security MUST contact the Police Dept., and a complaint must be filed. We are a county of laws, so both victims AND accusers have a right to due process.


8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2019 at 10:20 am

Unfortunately, the number one risk factor is the one that no organization, including Stanford, wants to take head on. Read some of the research here:

Web Link

Unless Stanford, like the rest of society, is willing to actually -curtail- binge drinking, there will be a problem, according to the research. Some personality traits are also risk factors. (Is it OK for universities to discriminate against potential students on the basis of personality traits? It is easy to game any kind of simple personality test.) Attitudes are also a risk, and, that is something that Stanford and other universities can work on: "rape myth attitudes" and "hostility toward women".

Sadly (to me), the biggest risk factor is not going to be addressed. Too many people see binge drinking as a concomitant with social success.


8 people like this
Posted by Alt
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2019 at 12:41 pm

This might sound like a joke, but if drinking is a core issue, can students find ways to make non-alcoholic drinking hip?

What about kombucha parties--you know, have students learn to mix it up into different types of cocktails?

Kombucha seems similar to beer, but has very low levels of alcohol (nominal) and is supposedly healthy--and hip. Drinking it can give you something of an alcohol buzz but not really. You can't get drunk on it.

Not trying to make light of the issue under discussion, just trying to think of alternatives to beer and other types of alcohol.


4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2019 at 2:55 pm

Posted by Alt, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood

>> just trying to think of alternatives to beer and other types of alcohol.

It is an important question. I tend to go with some variety of soda water myself; non-alcoholic beer is an option for some. Social convention seems to dictate some kind of drink in your hand.


4 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2019 at 7:21 pm

Binge drinking might make you drunk, but it's not the reason men commit sexual assault. Male and female students (and men and women of all ages) can drink, and sexual assault never enters the equation. Men commit sexual assault because they're sexually deviant, and it can happen whether they're drunk or sober. Don't blame the alcohol. Place the blame where it belongs - on the MAN.


6 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2019 at 10:51 am

Posted by Nick, a resident of another community

>> Binge drinking might make you drunk, but it's not the reason men commit sexual assault.

This isn't about having a glass of red wine with dinner, although even that limited amount might affect your driving.

>> Male and female students (and men and women of all ages) can drink, and sexual assault never enters the equation.

Study some research. It is surprising how often sexual assault -does- enter the equation.

>> Men commit sexual assault because they're sexually deviant, and it can happen whether they're drunk or sober. Don't blame the alcohol.

This is a strawman argument that causes serious harm. Nobody ever said that binge drinking is the -only- factor. (Well, maybe some Prohibitionists said that back in the day.) There is no single factor. This is a complex situation. Statistically, multifactor. People have to be able to talk about -all- the factors. Unfortunately, discussing how large a factor binge drinking is makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

>> Place the blame where it belongs - on the MAN.

The MAN should not binge drink.


3 people like this
Posted by Steve
a resident of another community
on Dec 6, 2019 at 5:03 pm

I agree with Nick. Getting drunk, binge drinking, blah, blah, blah isn't the reason sexual assault happens. If that was the case, there would be a lot more sexual assaults. Most sexual assaults (typical rapist) he probably ISN'T DRUNK. I doubt a rapist that breaks into a woman's home in the middle of the night is drunk. He's just a rapist.

Men commit sexual assault for the same reason he commits any type of assault. He's ABUSIVE. Bottom line, end of story.


5 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2019 at 12:16 pm

Posted by Steve, a resident of another community

>> I agree with Nick. Getting drunk, binge drinking, blah, blah, blah isn't the reason sexual assault happens.

"THE" reason? The statistics show that this is a multifactor problem. Why do you insist that there must be a single factor when the statistics clearly show multiple factors?

If you would read the cited research, you would discover that what you believe is "THE" reason is, in fact, "ONE OF THE" reasons.

>> If that was the case, there would be a lot more sexual assaults.

There are, actually. In fact, one reason we are having this discussion is because it is a major problem.

This whole discussion is exactly what I was talking about. Lots of people just don't want to hear that binge drinking is a significant "societal problem".


5 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Dec 7, 2019 at 9:45 pm

Binge drinking is a problem. It's just not the cause of rape.


1 person likes this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 7, 2019 at 10:47 pm

[Post removed]


7 people like this
Posted by @Anon
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 8, 2019 at 12:29 am

Look, we know you're trying to drag the Brock Turner case out again (indirectly, of course).

Yes, men rape when they've had a few (or more than a few). Men rape when they are under the influence of a given drug. Men also rape when they are cold stone sober.

Guess what the common factor in all of this is? The attitude among the men about sexual assault. It has NOTHING to do with being under the influence of anything other than a toxic view of women.

[Portion removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Dec 8, 2019 at 7:29 am

Binge drinking has been going on at college campuses forever. Yet, years ago sexual assault on campus wasn't a problem. The only thing that has changed is the behavior of men towards women.

Blaming alcohol for sexual assault is as stupid as blaming being broke for stealing. You didn't steal because you're broke. You stole because you're a thief. You didn't rape because you're drunk. You raped because you're sexually deviant, and you're a rapist.


13 people like this
Posted by Family Friendly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2019 at 12:34 pm

"years ago sexual assault on campus wasn't a problem."

You must be really, really young.


2 people like this
Posted by Nick
a resident of another community
on Dec 8, 2019 at 2:46 pm

"There's Been a Huge Increase in Sexual Assaults on Colleges Campuses. Why?"
(May 26, 2017)

"It isn't clear if the 205 percent in reported assaults, as cited above in a new federal study, means there have been more actual assaults or just more reporting of assaults.

Reports of sexual assault on college campuses have surged dramatically in the past 15 years, according to a new study, while all other reported on-campus crimes have decreased."

So... if it's increased 205 percent in the last 15 years, what do you think it was like 50 years ago? Almost non-existent.

I remember my dad telling me he never heard of sexual assault when he was in college in the 50s. I remember a few, but not many in the late 70s, early 80s. Now - it's rampant on ALL college campuses.

Whether you want to believe it or not, 50-75 years ago - sexual assault wasn't a problem on college campuses.


7 people like this
Posted by Family Friendly
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 8, 2019 at 4:07 pm

Rapes may wells have been fewer seventy years ago, when college dorms were sex segregated and had curfews.

Forty years ago, however, there were lots of rapes on campuses. At Berkeley 40 years, we had serial rapists in masks who would invade the campus late at night to prey on women walking alone home from parties. Thankfully, DNA analysis and surveillance cameras have greatly mitigated the problem of forceable rape.

The alcohol and drug cultures remain, however, exacerbating the difficulty that immature brains have with impulse control. There's been a broadening of the definition of "sexual assault" far beyond forcible rape, which makes comparing statistics from fifty years ago an apples and oranges exercise. Also, sexual assault is far more likely to be reported these days, because of mandatory reporting laws. Universities used to cover these things up.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 8, 2019 at 4:20 pm

Posted by @Anon, a resident of Mountain View

>> Look, we know you're trying to drag the Brock Turner case out again (indirectly, of course).

Actually, no. Brock Turner is a convicted rapist. I wasn't discussing that case and don't plan to.

I was discussing the -multifactor- analysis of risk factors. As discussed in the cited research.


2 people like this
Posted by @Anon
a resident of Mountain View
on Dec 8, 2019 at 10:21 pm

"I was discussing the -multifactor- analysis of risk factors. As discussed in the cited research."

BULL.

You're trying to push off sexual predator behavior by pointing at alcohol as *the* factor.

Stop. It. Already.


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