Recent student initiatives aim to improve sexual assault prevention

Feb. 13, 2017, 12:18 a.m.

Over the past few years, a diverse array of student organizations has sought to combat sexual assault on campus. Those organizations’ initiatives have included workshops, conferences, student groups and collaboration with the administration — all of which tackle different aspects of the issue, including efforts in education and prevention, data transparency and University accountability and adjudication.


Education and prevention

The Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council (GSC) have spearheaded efforts to expand sexual assault educational measures over the past year, including extending mandatory online education to graduate students. Last year, former GSC Financial Officer Sam Bydlon Ph.D. ’17 and 2015-16 GSC co-chair Gabriel Rodriguez ’14 Ph.D. ’16 co-authored a proposal to fortify sexual assault prevention by mandating online training for graduate students and in-person training sessions for undergraduates, among other measures.

The Senate and GSC voted unanimously in favor of the plan, which was later used to formulate a similar proposal passed by the Faculty Senate.

“We really wanted to get students having to interact,” Bydlon said. “At least, that’s what the professionals think is one of the best ways to augment prevention education at Stanford.”

Reaching beyond the scope of University requirements, student organizations have also created their own platforms for sexual assault awareness and education. The Violence Intervention & Prevention (VIP) initiative, piloted in 2015, trains fraternity and sorority chapter representatives over the course of two quarters. Some Greek organizations, including Chi Omega, partnered with the One Love Foundation to present the Escalation Workshop, which used films and directed discussions to raise awareness of relationship abuse.

In addition to minimizing risk through education, prevention efforts have targeted vulnerable areas of Stanford campus. Specifically, students expressed concern about the colloquially named “Scary Path,” an unofficial, unlit dirt path extending from lake houses such as Kappa Alpha to Lomita Row. After over a year of concerted effort, the Knoll Path working groupa collection of students, faculty and policeapproved plans for an alternate path that will be constructed this spring.


Data transparency

One of the most contentious aspects of Stanford’s approach to sexual assault cases last year was data collection and transparency. Law professor Michele Dauber has long been an advocate for sexual assault reform measures at Stanford, particularly regarding data analysis.

The single most important thing that any college or university can do is to have a higher degree of data transparency and availability,” Dauber said.

She proposed a single, uniform climate survey and requirements for schools to disclose aggregate data as fundamental ways to improve transparency.

The Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), founded by students who participated in Dauber’s 2015 Sophomore College course on sexual assault, has frequently called attention to a lack of data transparency. Last year, ASAP criticized the Campus Climate Survey, which collected data about the prevalence of sexual assault at Stanford, for the survey’s methods of quantifying sexual assault in terms of question phrasing and data representation.

“I think the reason why ASAP is so valuable for the Stanford community is that we go beyond that initial educational step,” said ASAP co-founder Stephanie Pham ’18. “We talk about the information that Stanford doesn’t want to discuss.”  

ASAP believes that the techniques used to analyze the data, in addition to the questions themselves, were employed to portray Stanford in a positive light.

One of the commonly cited issues with the climate survey was that it was not nationally adopted, and therefore not directly comparable with other universities. ASAP suggested that other optionssuch as the survey conducted by the Association of American Universities (AAU), which many of Stanford’s peer schools usecould be used in the future to evaluate the sexual assault situation at Stanford in a national context.

Some, however, do not agree with ASAP’s criticisms. Bydlon said he weighed arguments from both Dauber and the administration and concluded that the Campus Climate Survey provided sufficiently clear questions and reliably publicized data.

The GSC and Senate have also tackled the obstacle of data transparency, with a focus on Stanford’s definition of sexual assault.

Bydlon’s proposal from last year recommended broadening Stanford’s definitions of sexual assault, misconduct and relationship violenceterms which had been more narrowly defined in the past at Stanford than at other universities. Bydlon emphasized that expanding definitions not only aids data collection, but fundamentally benefits survivors.

According to Bydlon, although Stanford takes cases of sexual misconduct seriously, “for many people, [misconduct] doesn’t convey seriousness.”

Bydlon helped create a joint sub-committee between the GSC and Undergraduate Senate, which this year is working on implementing Callisto, an online system intended to facilitate sexual assault reporting.


University accountability and adjudication

Matthew Baiza ’18, another co-founder of ASAP, characterized ASAP’s actions last year as primarily reactions to campus controversy. For instance, ASAP created a petition for Stanford to implement measures to support the survivor in the Brock Turner rape case, garnering over 160,000 signatures last year.  

Pham and Baiza emphasized the importance of holding the University accountable for its actions. Pham said that the administration has made progress, as evidenced by the increased number assault reports, reflecting a greater trust between survivors and the administration’s handling of cases. She also applauded the administration’s support for educational efforts.

However, Pham was concerned that some University measures may indicate a focus on image rather than concrete change. She cited the hard alcohol ban enacted at the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year as an example.

“It seemed like a way for Stanford to protect its image,” Pham said. “It seemed like it was just to show that Stanford was doing something to combat sexual assault. Was it an effective way? Absolutely not. It probably will make it worse by driving drinking behind closed doors.”

While some groups have criticized administrative measures for being opaque, Claudia McKenzie ’18, Stanford Women’s Coalition president and a student representative on the Sexual Assault Advisory Committee, pointed out that the Committee actively solicits student contributions. The collection of students, faculty members and staff hosts town hall meetings and seeks online input to help formulate its recommendations for the University.


Integrating approaches

The diversity of student approaches to combating sexual assault has raised concerns about campus incoherence. According to Baiza, student groups’ leaders often know each other, but they do not necessarily collaborate on unified efforts.

The FEARLESS Conference, a collection of workshops and speaker events, attempts to address this decentralization. FEARLESS was first organized at Stanford last year as a way to highlight survivor voices and bring together diverse perspectives on sexual assault initiatives.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between making sure that advanced activists can get something from the conference, but also that it can be a starting point for people who don’t have that much background,” said Madeleine Lippey ’18, founder of FEARLESS at Stanford.

Lippey explained that the first conference last year largely featured students in Greek life and did not draw from a particularly diverse segment of the student population. Partly in response to this limitation, FEARLESS plans to host an activities fair to facilitate cross-campus collaboration this year instead of a conference.

Other integration efforts included a workshop hosted last year by the Women’s Coalition, the Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response (SARA) and the Senate to foster dialogue between different student initiatives. Participants included representatives from SARA, the Stanford Sexual Health Peer Resource Center (SHPRC) and the VIP program, among other organizations.

Despite efforts to collaborate, cohesion among groups remains a challenge. Pham and Lippey cited concerns that divergent efforts have weakened student potential to enact tangible change.

Pham explained that this diversity in efforts stems from the nature of sexual assault itself.

“It hits you in a very emotional way, and it’s very difficult to translate emotion and personal emotion into something structured and cohesive and perfectly aligned,” she said.

Pham also said that the lack of unity allows the movement to permeate more communities within the University, even if it may seem divisive on the surface.

“That’s why the movement has become so powerful,” Pham said. “Everyone has interpreted it in their own unique way, and afforded their own unique experiences and their own opinions.”


Contact Claudia Heymach at cheymach ‘at’ and Adithi Iyer at adithii ‘at’


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