Stanford put on defensive over efforts to deter sex assault

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(Santa Clara County Sheriff / MGN)

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – Stanford University officials say policies to prevent and respond to sexual assault worked as well as expected after bystanders spotted a member of the swimming team sexually assaulting an unconscious woman near a garbage bin.

Two graduate students passing by on bicycles interrupted the attack, chased down a freshman and held him until campus police arrived. Brock Turner was arrested and agreed to leave Stanford and never return rather than be expelled.

But with outrage brewing over a six-month jail sentence the one-time Olympic hopeful received last week, Stanford unexpectedly has found itself defending its sexual assault prevention efforts and arguing that the case should be cited as evidence of their success, not failure.

“Stanford University did everything within its power to assure that justice was served in this case,” the university said in a statement, citing a swift police investigation and referral to prosecutors, who got a conviction on felony assault and attempted rape charges.

A judge who attended Stanford and played lacrosse there as an undergraduate sentenced the 20-year-old Turner of Dayton, Ohio, to the jail stint, three years’ probation and ordered him to register as a sex offender.

Like other U.S. colleges and universities, Stanford has been under renewed pressure from federal education officials, state lawmakers and students to improve the way sexual assault victims are treated and to ensure perpetrators face serious and consistent consequences.

When Turner began his short-lived career as a swimmer for the prestigious California school in September 2014, orientation sessions featured a video of student-athletes discussing sexual violence and a talk by the provost on their rights and responsibilities as members of the Cardinal community. Stanford also required new students to complete online training that covered topics such as getting consent for sex.

Four months later, Stanford police arrested Turner for assaulting the woman he had met while they both were drunk at a fraternity party. The university banned him from campus for life and offered the victim counseling and other support even though she was not a student.

“What the case highlighted was the importance of our training and prevention efforts, and those are continuing, particularly in terms of bystander intervention – ‘If you see something, do something about it’ – and this case has been an excellent example for all of our students,” campus spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said.

But some faculty and students are not impressed with the university’s handling of sexual assaults and its response to the Turner case.

The Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention, a Stanford student group that staged protests and a teach-in for parents this school year, started an online petition calling on the school to publicly apologize to the victim, devote more money to prevention and survivor counseling programs, and undertake a survey of how prevalent sexual assaults are among campus fraternities.

Group co-founder Stephanie Pham called the university’s statement about its role in seeking justice for the victim “cold” and said it “lacked sympathy for the survivor in any way.”

“Sure, there were bystanders that stopped the rape from proceeding, and sure, they took whatever required steps afterward,” Pham said. “However, Stanford utilized its statement to defend its brand and defend its image.”

Lapin said Stanford welcomes the student efforts to educate their classmates but said the petition unfairly suggests the university shares blame for the length of Turner’s sentence.

“There is a certain point where the university doesn’t have the authority. So we did a thorough investigation, we presented considerable evidence to the county for prosecution and it was a successful prosecution,” she said.

Turner’s sentence sparked anger from critics who say Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky was too lenient on a privileged athlete. Persky cited a recommendation from the county’s probation department in the sentencing as well as Turner’s clean criminal record and the effect the conviction will have on his life.

The prosecutor had argued for a six-year term for crimes that could have sent Turner to prison for 10 years.

Backlash flared again Tuesday after it emerged that a member of an Ohio indie band wrote a letter of support for her childhood friend Turner. Several venues in New York City canceled appearances by the band, Good English.

An emotional statement the 23-year-old victim read at Turner’s sentencing faulted him for failing to take responsibility. She did not criticize the university and thanked the graduate students who tackled her attacker.

“I don’t sleep when I think about the way it could have gone if the two guys had never come. What would have happened to me?” she said.

The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault.

One of the students who stopped the attack told NBC News ( ) that he and his friend saw Turner on top of the woman and knew something was wrong.

“We saw she wasn’t moving at all, so talked to him briefly, then he started running away,” Carl-Fredrik Arndt said. “My friend Peter ran after and caught him.”

The victim and others are calling the pair heroes.

“I think it happened on instinct for us,” said Arndt, who testified at Turner’s trial. “I never thought about it twice, and I’m glad I did it.”

Stanford acknowledged that more needs to be done about sexual violence but said it is a national leader in implementing prevention programs, student training on intervention and support for victims.

“There is still much work to be done, not just here, but everywhere, to create a culture that does not tolerate sexual violence in any form and a judicial system that deals appropriately with sexual assault cases,” its statement said.

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