Lauren Schoenthaler answers questions about sexual violence at Stanford

Former Stanford student Brock Turner was released from jail this week after serving a sentence for his conviction on sexual assault charges. Recognizing the wide attention the case has received, Stanford Report asked Lauren Schoenthaler to provide a current perspective on the subject of sexual violence at Stanford.

Schoenthaler recently was appointed to the position of senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access. The role is responsible for the campus-wide coordination of equity and access programs, including Title IX and sexual violence prevention programs.

Lauren Schoenthaler
Lauren Schoenthaler

The victim’s statement in the Brock Turner case has attracted international attention. What was your reaction to the victim’s statement?

I don’t know Emily Doe, but like millions of others who read her extraordinary letter to Brock Turner, I am incredibly impressed by this young woman. She has individually and personally been able to shine a spotlight on campus rape, and she has moved the conversation from the steps of campus administration buildings to family dinner tables all around the country. To end sexual violence we need these discussions to happen at the family dinner table – it is an issue for every one of us. Emily Doe eloquently and simply made sexual violence on college campuses a universal concern.

Emily Doe should not have been sexually assaulted anywhere, and she should not have been sexually assaulted at Stanford. On behalf of the Stanford community, I offer my heartfelt apology that this happened to her. Making sure that we have the right outreach and follow-up with victims is of the utmost importance to me as I move into my new role.

What is Stanford doing differently as a result of the Brock Turner case? What is your own focus as you move into this role?

Stanford is continuing to expand its programs, and is redoubling its commitment to address campus sexual assault, as a result of the Brock Turner case. My focus, too, is on working to bring an end to sexual violence on our campus.

It’s been publicized already that Stanford added $2.7 million of new and expanded programs to the university budget this year to tackle sexual violence. This funding supports an expansion of educational programs, new support services for victims of sexual assault and a state-of-the-art process for adjudicating allegations of sexual violence, among other things.

I am also excited that the SARA Office [Office of Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response] is rolling out two new student-generated programs focusing on prevention and affirmative consent this fall. One highlights stories from current students to engage conversation and exploration around sexuality, intimacy, relationships and consent. The second is student-led training for freshmen that will replace dorm talks previously conducted by staff. I love that it is students who developed and will deliver these programs. I want to continue to partner with students because I think the best way to change student culture around consent norms is through students themselves. Fundamentally, I want to keep the conversation going about what constitutes unwanted conduct and what consent looks like.

Another major focus of mine, and of Stanford’s, is making students aware of the services we have on campus to support sexual assault victims. We have excellent counselors in the Confidential Support Team, a group of mental health therapists who specialize in serving sexual assault and relationship abuse victims. In addition to providing therapeutic care, these team members have also been trained extensively on Stanford’s processes for internal investigations, the county’s process for medical evidence collection, the police process for criminal investigation and the DA’s process for criminal prosecution. They provide compassionate care, and I am grateful for their good work.

How would you assess where Stanford is today, in terms of making progress on combating sexual assault?

Stanford has made a lot of progress. But there is always more work to do.

Sexual assault prevention has been a key focus of the university for years. We expanded educational programs; adopted the affirmative consent standard before it was state law; created the SARA Office and the Title IX Office; hired on-campus therapists to provide confidential counseling for students impacted by sexual violence; created a campus-wide task force to recommend improvements in our policies, support services and educational activities; and have been working to implement those improvements.

In the area of education and training, for example, before undergraduates even enter Stanford, they complete online training in the summer on sexual violence prevention. Once on campus, they participate in a live, performance-based training at New Student Orientation. They have additional educational programming after that, including the two new peer-education programs I already mentioned. And individual groups of students have additional training – residence staff, student-athletes and other groups.

All of our efforts notwithstanding, I do think that there is more progress to be made. Prevention is the best way to redress sexual assault, and the best prevention is to change the culture around consent. That takes student involvement and commitment, including bystander intervention. I like Blue Seat Studio’s “Tea Consent” video, which uses the power of analogy to make the point about consent. It is fascinating to me that we rely on words to communicate consent in most aspects of our lives, but within the intimate area of sexual interaction, we as a culture often rely on imperfect nonverbal cues. We need a culture shift toward frank, open dialogue.

Additionally, when a sexual assault does occur, the new Student Title IX Process is drafted to provide a fair and efficient process with strong disciplinary outcomes. While the past years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of victims being willing to proceed through the university process, I want every victim to seek redress through it. I would like to meet with students reluctant to use the process to find out why.

I will be looking for what more we can be doing, substantively, to attack these issues. And we must always be asking what more we can do to provide for the safety and emotional health of our students, whatever experiences they have had or whatever concerns are confronting them. Care and compassion are important parts of what we must provide to our student community.

Are there particular dimensions of the sexual assault conversation that you think are misunderstood, or have been mischaracterized? What things need to be better understood?

I think it is always difficult to convey the deep commitment that people at Stanford bring to working on these issues, and to ensuring that our students have the opportunity to live and learn in a safe environment. That is a really fundamental, deeply held commitment here. Sexual violence is not a faceless issue to me or to others at Stanford who work to prevent and redress sexual violence. Every day we are working for survivors of violence – of all genders, sexual orientations, races and nationalities. These are the people that we work for, and we need to recommit ourselves to them every day.

Some parts of the Brock Turner case itself have been misunderstood. It’s worth remembering that our students intervened in the assault and were key in bringing about a successful prosecution. Brock Turner is permanently ineligible to re-enroll at Stanford as a student, and he is subject to arrest for trespass were he to return to the campus. Still, there is more to do here at Stanford to prevent such assaults from happening in the first place. While I am proud that our students intervened, the campus that I will work to create is a campus in which there is no longer a need for such intervention.

Is Stanford’s new ban on hard alcohol at parties a result of the Brock Turner matter? Will sexual assault victims or witnesses be punished if they have violated the policy?

The answer to both is no. The alcohol policy is an effort to address binge drinking, which has many negative impacts on the lives of students. There are too many students who drink so much that they are medically endangered and need emergency transport to the hospital. But as we work on that problem, we need to be clear that alcohol is never an excuse for sexual assault. A victim is never the cause of their own sexual assault. Never.

Someone who experiences a sexual assault should absolutely come forward to the police and to the university so that the person who is responsible for the assault – the perpetrator – can be held responsible. Stanford has never punished a victim or witness for an alcohol or drug violation in connection with a sexual assault investigation. Both California law and university policy specifically address this issue and provide amnesty for voluntary drug and alcohol ingestion in the course of sexual assault and relationship abuse investigations.

Does Stanford have a position on Brock Turner’s sentence, or on the recall effort involving the judge in the case?

Stanford has no official position on the prosecution, the sentence or the recall effort, because we have an institutional policy of non-interference in criminal prosecutions. The policy provides, in part: “Once a criminal charge has been issued by public law enforcement authorities, whether involving a campus or off-campus arrest, the matter has essentially been referred to the public administrative and judicial process. For that process to function independently, the university will follow its long-standing policy of non-interference.” In addition, the university cannot take a position on a vote to recall the judge or on his re-election because it is not a permissible activity under the university’s tax-exempt status.

What should parents know about sexual assault at Stanford?

Prevention, support and response to sexual violence have our full attention. We’re working on all of these fronts – and we could use your help. Have discussions about consent around the family dinner table. Talk to your students about bystander intervention and about watching out for your friends.

If your child ever tells you that they have been the victim of sexual assault, remember that sexual assault is not the victim’s fault. Offer support and get help first – there will be time for questions later. The resources available at Stanford are listed on our website, and I especially recommend getting professional help from a therapist from the Confidential Support Team.

We encourage students who have experienced a sexual assault to make a report both to the police and to the university. Stanford’s Department of Public Safety and Title IX Office have both been trained to conduct trauma-informed investigations. We want students to come forward so that we can get them the support they need, and so that we can end sexual violence on our campus. That’s what I’m going to be thinking about every day.