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Letter to the editor: Sexual assault prevention article

To the editors:

Yesterday the Daily reported that the Stanford Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP) held “informational” class sessions at the recent Parents’ Weekend, with the professed goal being (in the Daily’s words) “to inspire action and raise awareness.” One wonders how inspired the parents felt when they heard the sole faculty speaker at the sessions say, “Some students haven’t been here long enough to get raped yet, frankly.” It is bad enough that the parents heard such inflammatory language at an event that seems to have lacked any balance of viewpoints on the subject.  It is worse that key parts of what the parents heard about the Stanford disciplinary rules were distortions. And it is unfortunate that for the second time in recent months, the Daily failed to treat these issues with objective scrutiny.

As reported, the faculty speaker took issue with Stanford’s published numbers on the actual rate of sexual assault or misconduct on campus, as well as the methodological rigor of the recent climate survey. Those are complicated issues that are fair game for public discussion, although the discussion needs to have balance apparently unavailable at the ASAP event. But the speaker also made highly misleading claims about the disciplinary rules enacted under Stanford’s new pilot process for addressing sexual offenses. These claims substantially repeat those previously made in an open letter by the ASAP’s faculty speaker and others. That open letter was reported in the Daily in January, also without any scrutiny by the Daily. Many of these claims were then refuted in a public letter issued by the Provost immediately thereafter — a letter that the Daily never reported.

The gist of the unfortunate claims made at the weekend event is that Stanford employs a “relatively narrow definition of sexual assault compared to other universities.”  The speaker made much of the fact that certain sexual offenses that are called “sexual assault” at other schools fall in the definitional category “sexual misconduct” at Stanford, implying that these offenses are therefore not taken seriously at Stanford.  Indeed, the speaker, citing no empirical evidence on the differential effects of such legal distinctions, said that she feels that Stanford’s sanctions “are not harsh enough and that this might discourage students from reporting assaults. Low sanctions also might not deter students enough from actually committing violence …. ”  But as explained by the Provost in his public letter, in recent years Stanford has expanded, not restricted, the range of sexual conduct it prohibits, and that indeed no university in the country prohibits a wider range.

Moreover, the simplistic inter-university comparison of the terminology of sexual assault definitions ignores the differing contexts and operational consequences of the uses of such terms as “assault.” Simple research reveals that many universities do not even use the term “sexual assault,” and that some that do use the term never define it at all.  Further left unsaid to the parents was that the penalties for “sexual misconduct” at Stanford run the full gamut up to possible expulsion, and that the reason for putting certain behavior in the category of “sexual assault” was to make the most egregious offenses subject to a presumptive or “expected” punishment of expulsion. Because of that component, along with other features of the Stanford rules – and contrary to the speaker’s claim – Stanford now has one of the most severe sanctioning regimes in the nation.

Finally, while alluding to a comparison between Stanford’s rules and the laws of California, the faculty speaker failed to inform the parents that Stanford is fully compliant with the recent California statute requiring all colleges to forbid any sexual acts involving students without the “affirmative consent” of both parties. In fact, Stanford adopted its affirmative consent rule on its own initiative, more than two years before the California law was enacted.

I should note that the new rules in Stanford’s Pilot Title IX Process emerged from a Task Force of students, staff and faculty that was representative and diverse along all dimensions. Of course, this is hardly to deny that the definitions and processes in the Pilot are matters on which reasonable people can disagree. Indeed, that is one reason why this is a pilot project that will be evaluated by a newly appointed Advisory Group and will only become a permanent part of the university process if approved by the ASSU, the Graduate Student Council, and the Faculty Senate. But the goals of student safety and of public trust were hardly advanced by what was said at the Parent’s Weekend or by the Daily’s coverage of it.

– Robert Weisberg

 

Robert Weisberg is a Professor of Law and served on the Provost’s Sexual Assault Task Force.

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