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Campus groups react to sexual battery incidents

The Palo Alto Police Department released this sketch of the suspect who grabbed a woman’s breast on Aug. 29 at the Stanford Shopping Center parking lot.

In response to a recent string of local sexual battery cases, the Palo Alto Police Department has asked pedestrians to be more aware of their surroundings and recommended that “women jog in pairs or small groups whenever possible,” referring to a Sept. 19 incident in which an unknown male suspect groped and attempted to sexually assault a female jogger.

Preventative tips like these, however, may verge on victim-blaming, according to administrators from the Stanford Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) Office and the Women’s Community Center.

“To suggest that someone can employ certain tactics to ward off an offender — particularly when caught off guard during blitz attacks such as these — can be victim-blaming,” wrote Angela Exson, assistant dean of student life at SARA in an email to The Daily.

Both groups, however, understand the need for public safety and encourage Stanford students to do what they need to ensure their safety.

“We encourage students to do whatever makes them feel more safe and empowered in public spaces and behind closed doors, but we prefer not to give advice on self-defense,” Exson said.

The Palo Alto Police Department reported sexual battery incidents on Aug. 20 in downtown Palo Alto, on Aug. 29 in the Stanford Shopping Center parking lot and on Sept. 19 in El Palo Alto Park. The police believe the same suspect may have perpetrated all three incidents.

The first two cases happened in an open area, where the suspect grabbed onto a body part and then fled. Lt. Zachary Perron of the Palo Alto Police Department said the latest case is more concerning because it involved a victim struggling to escape a bear hug from behind in a secluded footpath.

According to Perron, three cases within a month-long period are a rarity. A couple hours after the September case, detectives posted safety flyers and a description of the suspect along the footpath, and last Friday, detectives returned to the footpath to interview potential witnesses and to raise awareness about the case.

As the Palo Alto Police continue their investigation, Exson said that preventative safety tips should not be directed towards possible victims.

“Sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual assault are only fully preventable by the offender or initiator of the act,” Exson said. “Taking preventative measures to protect oneself can be effective in some cases, but it is not always possible to do so, and some suggest that it may make the situation worse.”

According to Exson, the SARA Office discourages contributing to guilting or blaming survivors, and believes that perpetrators should hold full responsibility.

Fatima Kazmi, associate dean and director at the Women’s Community Center, agreed with Exson’s sentiments, especially on the subject of learning self-defense as a means of prevention.

“We don’t advocate using self-defense as a prevention measure for a sexual assault or rape or relationship abuse because it’s not prevention,” Kazmi said.

“It’s more resources and tools for women and men to be aware of their surroundings and to use in cases of emergencies but I don’t want to conflate it with a predictor of whether or not somebody is going to be attacked because it puts the onus on the victims instead of on the perpetrators,” she added.

According to Perron, another anomaly in the Palo Alto cases is that the suspect was a stranger to all the victims. He said that usually in cases of sexual assault or sexual battery, the victim recognizes the suspect, as in cases of date rape.

“In the interests of individual and community safety — and to fully address concerns that students may have about retaliation — victims are encouraged to report incidents to the Department of Public Safety or file a complaint with the Office of Community Standards,” Exson said in response to a question on what students should do if they find themselves victim of someone they recognize and fear retaliation.

Exson said that for more extenuating circumstances, the SARA Office is exploring collaboration with the University Department of Public Safety to provide students in these cases with on- and off-campus procedures.

Meanwhile, as the Palo Alto suspect is still at large, the police request members of the public to report any information they have about the suspect or any other sexual battery cases to 650-329-2413.

About Ileana Najarro

Ileana Najarro is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a News Desk Editor and Staff Writer.