A Stanford University statement released last week curtly revealed that members of the school's Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity had in recent months engaged in "intimidating and retaliatory conduct, including acts of cyberbullying, directed at another student based on a false belief that the student had reported Title IX concerns about SAE."
The next day, that student stepped forward, offering the public a rare view into a Title IX investigation at a university that has come under fire over the past year for its handling of students' sexual-assault complaints. Tess Bloch-Horowitz, a sophomore, penned an opinion piece published in the student newspaper, the Stanford Daily, titled, "On living in fear of telling the truth: My experience with SAE, retaliation and Title IX."
Bloch-Horowitz, herself a member of Stanford Greek life, wrote about being harassed by members of the fraternity to her face during a spring break trip in Mexico (which she cut short, feeling unsafe), behind her back to friends and on social-media platforms. (She shared a screenshot from the anonymous polling app Whatsgoodly, showing a poll titled, "Does Bloch report things?" with the percentage of voters who selected "everything," "she hates fun," or "f--- her.")
Some members of SAE erroneously assumed she was the reason the university had slapped their fraternity with a two-year housing suspension earlier in the year. The sanction followed a sexual harassment investigation into a party hosted by SAE in May 2014, which the university in December said infringed upon the rights of female students in attendance "in a discriminatory manner." Female students were "subjected to highly offensive material" that contained graphic sexual content and offensive comments regarding domestic physical abuse of women, the university said.
SAE leadership declined to comment for this story.
Bloch-Horowitz attended that party -- and even got up and walked out with several other women after a series of sexist jokes were told, she said -- but did not report it to the university. She said she and the other students who left talked about being offended but didn't consider the option of reporting.
"I was afraid of what would happen if I did," she wrote in the Daily op-ed.
Stanford's Title IX office decided to open an investigation into SAE last summer after hearing about the May party and two alcohol-related hospitalizations that also occurred that night, Bloch-Horowitz said. This was not the first time the university had heard of misconduct at SAE or the fraternity had been sanctioned over alcohol use and harassment of women.
Bloch-Horowitz's involvement in the Title IX case occurred over the summer, when an independent investigator hired to look into SAE approached her. She said she decided to speak to the investigator because it was "the right thing to do," she told the Weekly. They spoke for about half an hour; Bloch-Horowitz recounted what she had witnessed at the event. She wasn't concerned about her name getting out -- she had been promised confidentiality both in writing and during the conversation with the investigator -- and felt comfortable knowing that there were other students cooperating, she said. (The university said a total of 30 people were interviewed for the investigation.)
"All I did was tell the truth about what happened and what I felt, and somewhat naively, I never thought that telling the truth would put me in a situation like this," she said.
SAE members found out that she spoke to the investigator and began spreading rumors, blaming her for the loss of their house in December despite the fact that the university told them that no individual had filed a report in the first place, Bloch-Horowitz said.
Together with her parents, she decided to contact the investigator to find out how SAE had gotten her name in the first place (a question that still remains unanswered, she said). Then the retaliation got even worse. Once the investigator learned about the harassment against Bloch-Horowitz, that set off a series of events that had the unwelcome effect of making the harassment greater, she said. The investigator called Title IX Coordinator Catherine Criswell, who then emailed SAE's leadership and legal adviser, who then reached out to every member to "warn them to stop their behavior," her Daily piece states.
"As I had feared, this only increased the harassment," she wrote.
When she returned to campus, Bloch-Horowitz met with Criswell, who told her the university would be moving forward with a new investigation "with or without my cooperation or consent," Bloch-Horowitz said.
Bloch-Horowitz said she decided to share her story publicly after she returned from Cabo, wanting to both set the record straight and confront the culture around reporting on campus.
"SAE decided to target me by making my name synonymous with reporting. The irony is that while I was not that person to begin with, their actions have forced me to become someone who is willing to embrace the title and finally stand up and speak out against them," she wrote in the Daily.
"I am a victim of harassment and retaliation, and this experience has been among the hardest I have ever had to deal with," she wrote. "I cannot imagine what it must be like for victims of violence and assault. Given the retaliation I faced for merely being thought to have reported harassment, I don't know if I could face actually reporting a case of assault. And I am not willing to become a cautionary tale, an example of the reasons why people shouldn't report."
She's insistent that her speaking out is not about her case but instead a "culture of retaliation" -- and fear -- that permeates life at Stanford and many other colleges.
"Obviously, that's very real at Stanford," she told the Weekly.
She said after her piece came out, she started receiving emails or hearing from other students saying, they've gone through the same thing -- or worse, she said.
For retaliating against Bloch-Horowitz, deterring another student from reporting a Title IX concern and violating an alcohol suspension, Stanford last week declared SAE an unhoused fraternity, indefinitely. The fraternity will also be placed on probationary status for three years -- still a recognized student organization, but "considered a chapter not in good standing," the university said. SAE can appeal these sanctions.
Bloch-Horowitz questioned the university's discipline in light of a condition of the fraternity's previous suspension: that any further misconduct could result in additional consequences, "up to and including loss of charter recognition."
"Stanford's decision to allow SAE to keep their charter, despite their knowledge of SAE's failure to change and their ability to impose that sanction, makes me question how seriously they take retaliation," she wrote in the Daily. "By not following through, is Stanford telling us that retaliation doesn't matter enough? ... And are they telling future victims that they shouldn't bother to come forward, because their voices will not be heard?"
Bloch-Horowitz said it feels like mixed messaging from the university, which has stated it "finds most egregious and will not tolerate conduct that intimidates students for speaking out when they believe they or others have been wronged."
However, she said her personal interactions with administrators have been positive.
"I guess they're trying to be diplomatic but it's very, very difficult," she said. "When it comes to an issue like this, there's no decision that can be made that will make everyone happy. I think a lot of times universities are trying to reach compromises when you shouldn't be compromising ... on the safety of your students."
Despite the negative impact of the retaliation, it's spurred Bloch-Horowitz to action. As part of a new Violence Intervention and Prevention program within Greek life, she's going to be leading a working group with the Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse (SARA) office and Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life "to foster a culture that condemns retaliation and supports those who come forward." The group will provide resources, prevention education and advocate for policy changes to protect both victims and witnesses of sexual assault or sexual harassment.
Bloch-Horowitz said she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from both friends and strangers after her piece published. She said she hasn't heard from any SAE members. Some administrators thanked her for sharing her story and "working to do something to try and create change on a level that they can't really necessarily reach," she said.
But she said the most challenging thing to hear, ironically, was from those who called her brave for speaking out.
"I take that as a compliment, of course, but at the same time, it makes me sad. I wish it didn't take bravery to tell the truth," she said. "I don't want to live in a culture where it's brave to speak out against what's wrong. I want to live somewhere where that's the norm."
To read Bloch-Horowitz's op-ed piece, go to stanforddaily.com.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created an archive of past news articles, social media reaction and other content related to the ongoing sexual assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.