On Wednesday, the result of a year’s work by the Provost’s Task Force on Sexual Assault was released in the form of a report of recommendations. We are thankful for the vast amount of input given by the student body to inform that work, demonstrated by the more than 80 meetings of the task force with experts, including 10 student-specific town halls and hundreds of emails with feedback and ideas for us to consider.
We hope that the recommendations and their rationales we included in the report can stand on their own. But because this is by a nature a community problem — one that requires the full involvement of all Stanford students — we wanted to take the opportunity to highlight and clarify some of the particularly complex or controversial points in an effort to build an understanding of the coming changes.
The Task Force’s recommendations on student support revolve around the need for a “one-stop shop.” The confidential support and response team will provide students access to coordinated and unified care from experts with a background in psychology and social work, the beginnings of which are already in place through the Confidential Sexual Assault Counselors recently hired by the University. Having a single point of contact for a student during a traumatic process will hopefully lessen the burden on students to be their own advocates.
The same themes of centralizing and unifying processes were applied to our recommendations regarding adjudication, with the goal of increasing clarity and efficiency for all involved. There will be one investigation, performed by the Title IX office. Panels will work from a closed file, as deliberations on the inclusion or exclusion of evidence will now be handled by the Title IX office and/or an external evidentiary review before the panel begins its deliberations. There will be three, not five, panel members. Panelists of faculty, staff and potentially graduate students will be regularly and thoroughly trained and serve for multi-year terms so as to ensure expertise and consistency. Our hope is that many of those who would have chosen not to undertake a university adjudication process in the past — because they thought it was intrusive, burdensome, drawn out or unlikely to lead to an acceptable outcome — would now feel more comfortable doing so going forward.
Likely the most controversial recommendation is that expulsion will be the “expected” sanction for those found responsible for sexual assault. That has been the issue that The Stanford Daily consistently chooses to lead its headlines and the one that has inspired dozens of heated debates in our conversations, town halls, feedback forms and rallies. In our experience, those opposed to such a policy generally do so either on the grounds that the preceding adjudication process is unfair in its insufficient respect for the rights of the accused or that expulsion is inappropriate in the “messy,” “confusing” sexual lives of college students, wherein sexual assault is often just a misunderstanding. To the first point, we believe deeply that Stanford’s new adjudication process — which incorporates expertly trained investigators and panelists, multiple reviewers, a standard of unanimity for findings of responsibility and expulsion, an evidentiary challenge and an appeal stage — protects the rights of accused, as it does all participating students.
Secondly, we wholly reject the notion that sexual assault, as defined by Stanford policy, can be a product of misunderstanding. Sexual assault, accomplished through “force, violence, duress or menace,” or against an individual who is incapacitated (a purposefully narrow definition — someone who is asleep, unconscious or totally incapable of knowing what is going on around himself or herself), is one of the most serious forms of interpersonal violence and impossible to commit “accidentally.” In its enormous violation of respect for the humanity of another student, it is the ultimate expression of “sufficient cause for removal from the University” in our Fundamental Standard.
It is also important to draw a distinction between sexual assault and sexual misconduct. The latter, too, is a serious violation, requiring a lack of respect and compassion — a blindness to one’s own power and an unwillingness or inability to realize what an intimate partner is experiencing. Generally these cases involve a dispute over consent. Many are initially consensual experiences that involve one student repeatedly urging another to acquiesce to the next step in sexual activity until the other capitulates, or someone showing signs of distress but freezing up in the moment. Expulsion is an option, but the majority of those who are found responsible would be suspended — an assessment that at once acknowledges the individual needs time away from Stanford to learn how to become a more respectful member of the community and the importance of protecting other students.
Both of us consider ourselves sex-positive feminists, and so we hope to frame the Task Force’s recommendations as much with reassurance as tough rhetoric. One of the most insidious myths flitting around college campuses is that universities are forbidding “drunk sex.” Let us say unequivocally that is not true, and that inebriation and incapacitation are very different. It is also vital to keep in mind that it is a tiny proportion of our student body who violates the University prohibit sexual conduct policy; the vast majority of us understand that the way to have an enjoyable sexual-romantic life — and not to break the rules — is to, very simply, be attentive to the needs of one’s partner. It is not a particularly complex or confusing principle to follow, and like many of the things one learns at Stanford, it should serve us all well in our post-college lives.
In a week or so, we will be leaving the ASSU office to make room for the next Executive team, and both of us will be graduating in June. These recommendations, ones that the administration has stated they will implement in the near future, should make a significant step forward in making Stanford a safer, healthier campus. But we will be the first to acknowledge they will almost certainly need to be revised and enhanced over the next few years. It is that conviction — that Stanford can and should aspire to be a national leader in its handling of sexual violence, constantly striving to do better — that we hope will guide the next wave of student engagement with this issue.
Elizabeth Woodson ’15
Benjy Mercer-Golden ’15
Contact Elizabeth Woodson at ewoodson ‘at’ stanford.edu and Benjy Mercer-Golden at benjym ‘at’ stanford.edu.