‘It’s a mess’: Stanford’s sexual assault reporting process marred by confusion, lack of transparency, advocates say

Jan. 18, 2023, 6:25 p.m.

Sofia Scarlat ’24 sat in Stanford Hospital’s waiting room her frosh year, anxiously refreshing her email for an AlertSU about her sexual assault

Scarlat didn’t know what would be in the alert or who reported her case to the University. 

“It was very clear to me, all throughout this entire process, but especially during that particular moment, that no one truly knew how to handle the situation,” said Scarlat, who is the ASSU Sexual Violence Prevention Committee co-director and Sexual Violence Free Stanford (SVFree) co-leader. 

“Many survivors likely share this experience,” Scarlat said. 

Other sexual violence prevention advocates also criticized Stanford’s sexual assault reporting process, which they say minimizes survivors’ painful experiences. Advocates called for increased transparency in the reporting process and a fundamental shift in campus culture that they say perpetuates sexual violence. 

Reporting Process

Sexual violence can be reported to the Stanford University Department of Public Service (SUDPS) and the Share Title IX Office.

Title IX Coordinator and Director of the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Education Office Stephen Chen and SUDPS Chief Laura Wilson explained the University’s process to report sexual violence in a statement to The Daily.

While the Title IX office and SUDPS “conduct separate investigations and do not share details about their respective investigations, they coordinate together to ensure their respective investigative processes do not interfere with one another,” they wrote.  

The University did not respond to questions about how the two offices coordinate without sharing details.

Chen and Wilson pointed students to the The Annual Safety, Security and Fire Report (ASR) for the official process of reporting a sexual assault case on campus. 

To officially report a crime, a victim, witness, a third party or the offender must tell a mandated reporter or local law enforcement personnel. 

California state law requires mandated reporters, which include most staff members, like faculty and resident assistants (RAs), “to immediately or as soon as practicably possible report a violent crime, sexual assault or hate crime to local law enforcement.” It is not the mandated reporter’s responsibility to “convince a victim to contact law enforcement if the victim chooses not to do so,” the ASR states. 

The primary law enforcement on campus is SUDPS. According to Chen and Wilson, as a law enforcement agency, “DPS has more investigative tools available to it than the Share Title IX Office.” The University did not respond to questions about what these tools were.

According to student advocates, there is a common misconception that SUDPS is separate from the Stanford Police Department, when they are in fact the same thing. 

Responding to concerns that there is a lack of awareness of the relationship between the University and law enforcement, University spokesperson Luisa Rapport wrote that “we appreciate the feedback around students’ understanding of these issues.” 

Anyone in the Stanford community can report an incident of sexual harassment to the SHARE Title IX office, including through this online form. According to the Title IX website, filing a report with SHARE Title IX does not automatically initiate a formal complaint and investigation but rather notifies the University of a possible incident and that an impacted person may require additional support. 

Advocates said most cases begin with an RA first alerting the residence dean (RD) of a crime. The RA fills out a Title IX form, detailing available information about the victim and perpetrator. The RD files the same report. 

The mandated reporter then calls SUDPS’s non-emergency number to share details of the crime. SUDPS asks general questions, including “what type of crime occurred, where it occurred, when it occurred and whether the crime involved violence.” Mandated reporters don’t include the victim’s name unless the victim chooses to disclose that information to SUDPS. 

Cases are reported in an AlertSU only if it is determined there is a danger to the community. If an AlertSU is not issued, the crime will only be reported in University statistics, like the annual Title IX report

Criticisms

Student frustration and confusion over how the University handles sexual assault cases increased after the University sent an update about a sexual assault on Oct. 8. The University email responded to community concerns about the limited information provided in the AlertSu following a report the previous day. Another report in August also came from a mandated reporter. 

“Because of the limited information … we urge anyone in the campus community who may have useful information to share it with DPS … we encourage victims of sexual violence to come forward so that law enforcement and the university can assist,” wrote SUDPS and the SHARE Title IX in the community email.

Sexual violence prevention advocates on campus expressed concern that the wording of the email blamed victims for not reporting their assault to SUDPS, rather than offering insight into steps the University is taking to address and prevent sexual violence. 

”I thought that it was just absolutely cruel of the University to say that they want to help, but they simply can’t because survivors aren’t cooperating with them,” Scarlat said. 

Low Reporting Rates + AlertSU

According to RAINN, about a third of sexual assaults are reported to the police. At Stanford, less than 3% of students experiencing nonconsensual sexual contact reported their most recent incident to the University or the police, according to a 2015 Stanford report on campus climate. 

According to a 2019 report, only 18.6% of students who experience some form of gender based violence or harassment report to any University resource, including confidential resources. 

According to Michel Dauber, a law professor and advocate for survivors of sexual violence, the rate of reporting to Stanford is 10% of the already low national norm.

“If I were Persis Drell looking at that statistic I would be running around with my hair on fire demanding real change right now,” Dauber wrote in an email. “Instead, she and the rest of the administration have apparently normalized that shocking number.”

The University did not respond to questions about whether administrators view the rate of reporting as normal. 

After she was discharged from the hospital, Scarlat’s RF informed her that a mandated reporter had alerted SUDPS and to expect an AlertSU. Neither Scarlat or her RF knew if the community alert would include her name.  

“If I were being super rational in that moment, obviously my name wouldn’t be included in the report,” Scarlat said. “But when you’re in that situation, where everything is so overwhelming, you feel as though anything could happen because you’re completely stripped of any control.” 

According to Dauber, the lack of transparency has resulted in students simply not trusting the University to fairly handle these cases, a phenomenon she said was supported by Stanford data.

“Year over year, we have seen reporting cratering due to lack of student trust, and nothing is done about it,” Dauber wrote. 

A call for greater transparency & culture change

In Stanford’s history, only two students have been expelled for sexual violence. In a majority of cases, students and faculty who are found responsible for these offenses aren’t expelled or terminated.

Dauber reinforced that Stanford should remove rapists and harassers from campus permanently, which sexual violence prevention advocates have supported

They have also called for the University to fully fund Flip the Script, the only evidence-based sexual violence prevention program, fund more external security cameras in high-risk areas and silent panic alarms inside fraternities and dorms that could help aid investigations. 

“Stanford maintains a culture of impunity for perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence,” Dauber wrote. “For Stanford to blame inaction on low reporting strikes me as especially callous given that the low reporting is to a large degree Stanford’s own fault.”

Sexual assault prevention advocates across campus also called for increased transparency, starting with reimagining how the University trains mandated reporters. SVFree previously raised concerns that RAs lack a nuanced understanding of the aftermath of filing a report.

Advocates like Scarlat also want increased transparency and conversation between the University and campus community. 

“We don’t have access to information,” Scarlat said. “That’s a decision and a choice that the institution is making actively and very much knowingly.”

Rani is a reporter for The Daily's news section. Contact her at news 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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