PALO ALTO, Calif. — The 1,775 Stanford University undergraduates who received their degrees at Sunday morning’s commencement ceremony here paraded into the football stadium dressed as dinosaurs, astronauts, crayons, lions, 1920s flappers and Roman soldiers. It’s an annual tradition known as the Wacky Walk, a carnival of costumes that enlivens the customary uniformity of dark caps and gowns.
Mingled amid the comic and the outlandish were students bearing a more serious message: Criticism that efforts to address sexual assault at Stanford and on other college campuses across the country are still inadequate. Graduating seniors held signs reading, “Teach Your Son Not to Rape,” “Stanford Protects Rapists,” and “125 Years of Rape Culture,” an allusion to the fact that this year’s commencement was the university’s 125th.
Protest and discussion of sexual assault at Stanford was catapulted into the national media spotlight this month, after Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced former Stanford student Brock Turner to six months in jail for sexual assaulting an unconscious woman outside a fraternity party in January 2015. The victim’s eloquent statement about the effects of the attack, published online, has been viewed millions of times.
Two graduating seniors, Brianne Huntsman and Jonathan Fiske, helped organize Sunday’s protest at commencement.
“We’re using momentum from this case to bring light to broader issues,” said Fiske, who earned a bachelor’s degree in earth systems. “It’s a big PR issue. Stanford likes to keep this pristine image and sweep things under the rug.”
Stanford, in official statements and news releases, has sought to shift the conversation away from Palo Alto by noting that the Turner case is just one example of a much broader national problem not unique to this elite campus. Many students argue that much more can be done at Stanford.
Jackson Beard, an international relations major from Chicago, interacts regularly with the Stanford administration in her capacity as president of the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU). On May 12, shortly after being elected president on a campaign platform that emphasized addressing the issue of sexual violence, Beard emailed a top Stanford official to discuss ideas for making improvements.
She said she received a response that appeared dismissive and then never heard back on her request to set up a meeting.
“It was very disheartening,” she said. “I’ve been very proud of how many students in our community feel the urgency and importance of this issue. It remains unclear to me at this point whether that same sense of urgency is shared by the higher levels of the administration.”
Beard has many suggestions on how Stanford could increase campus safety, including better lighting throughout the many dark areas on the sprawling 8,000-acre campus, additional surveillance cameras at key campus locations, making rape kits available at Stanford’s hospital or health clinic (San Jose, about a half-hour drive away, is the closest available location), increasing staff for counselors and therapists, better education, and more transparency from the administration.
Stanford’s budget next year has allocated $2.7 million for “expanded programs to combat sexual violence.” Lisa Lapin, a Stanford spokeswoman, said this will fund a range of counselors and staff in multiple university offices.
The Turner assault happened behind a dumpster, close to what undergraduates refer to as “the scary path,” because it is unpaved and unlit and is hedged in by dense shrubs. Stanford created a task force in response to the safety concerns of students who use the path at night and has hung signs discouraging its use. Lapin said that Stanford tries to discourage students from being in areas that are not well lit.
“We tell our students that if they feel unsafe, they shouldn’t be in those darker areas,” Lapin said. “Stay on the lighted paths.”
Elliot Kaufman, a junior who is managing editor of the Stanford Review, a conservative campus newspaper, said the university has generally responded effectively in trying to protect students from sexual assault. Turner’s attack was interrupted by two Stanford graduate students who ran him down, tackled him and waited for authorities.
“With the exception of the sentence for Turner, which was not Stanford’s decision, the system seems to have worked,” Kaufman said. “I think one danger of the controversy is that it could be used to weaken the rights of the accused. It’s a delicate balance between the rights of victims and maintaining due process.”
Some students were more critical, singling out the school’s Title IX office, which is responsible for coordinating responses to alleged sexual assault and discrimination in accordance with the federal law after which it is named. Beard said the process of investigating allegations takes too long and that the office lacks sensitivity for survivors.
Mackenzie Alexis Yaryura, a public policy major from Florida, echoed the sentiment, saying, “I haven’t heard of anyone who’s had a positive experience with the Title IX office.”
Many parents of graduating Stanford students were eager to discuss campus safety and sexual assault over the weekend, including Loree Devery, a mother and attorney from Portland, Ore., whose daughter planned to take part in the protests.
“I’m very concerned about what appears to be a culture of acceptance of assault on campus,” Devery said. “Let’s not kid ourselves that this isn’t happening all the time.”
Diana Staatz, a Stanford graduate and the mother of a graduating senior, said that although Stanford has improved since she studied there in the 1970s, there’s still much more to do.
“I’m glad it’s getting attention. Things like this were more hushed up and under the radar when I was here. They tried to just make the problems disappear,” she said, noting that in the Turner case, Stanford reacted quickly to keep him away from the school. “It’s good that they sent it to the courts and banned him from campus. But we can do a whole lot better in our treatment of women in this country.”
Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Stanford’s commencement speaker, directly addressed the issue of sexual assault, noting that he has four daughters.
“If someone tells you they have been sexually assaulted,” Burns said, “take it effing seriously and listen to them.”
This story has been updated.