News

Stanford student speaks out against 'culture of retaliation'

Investigator: Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members harassed woman they wrongly assumed reported them to Title IX office

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.

Comments

8 people like this
Posted by concerned local
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2015 at 10:19 am

Darn, I saw "culture of retaliation" and thought this was a long-overdue expose on PAUSD.

I'm very disappointed to see that Stanford is going after the fraternity not the problem, which is people willing to bully and harass others. Often times, it's not even everyone, it comes down to some individuals. It seems to me the sanctions are just a lazy way of NOT dealing with the harder issues and will only have the effect of strengthening those individuals.


13 people like this
Posted by bill1940
a resident of Menlo Park
on May 28, 2015 at 11:42 am

Bravo Tess !! Your courage to speak out is admirable. As we all know, bullying and intimidation occurs at all levels of our educational system, and when students like yourself speak out, it is a positive step to solving, or at least minimizing this problem.


11 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 28, 2015 at 12:26 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

As long as Stanford, unlike the University of Oklahoma, fails to expel the SAE fraternity from the campus there is absolutely no reason for anyone to give Stanford any moral or financial support.


6 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on May 28, 2015 at 12:32 pm

The university needs to publish a list of student names belonging to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity; by just saying SAE, it doesn't focus the problem on the actual people who are doing the harassment.


13 people like this
Posted by Jon Castor
a resident of Woodside
on May 28, 2015 at 12:47 pm

I just read Ms. Bloch-Horowitz's opinion piece in the Stanford Daily. She's written the most thoughtful and insightful essay that I've read to date about this problem. Sad that she's experienced bullying and intimidation. Glad that she decided to step forward, confront the bullies and raise awareness that their bad behavior should not be tolerated. I hope that her working group succeeds in changing the culture. When enough other students who are not bullies and who are not targets step forward to put a stop to bullying and intimidation, the community will largely heal itself. I hope the Stanford administration sees this not only as a problem that must be solved, which it must be, but also as a tremendous opportunity to develop student character and values.


7 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2015 at 1:40 pm

What's missing in this story is how the SAE people came to know that Ms. Bloch-Horowitz had spoken to the investigator. Presumably their meeting(s) were private. There seems to be no mention of any belief that the investigator might have somehow been the source of this leak. And since the investigator seems to have met with other people also, how did Ms. Bloch-Horowitz end up with a target on her back? Somewhere between the investigator and the Title IX Office this information must have been made available to someone in SAE.

There has to be a lot more to this story. Sadly, it's very possible that we may never learn very many of the details.



15 people like this
Posted by Kick Tghem Out
a resident of Mountain View
on May 28, 2015 at 1:55 pm

No one has the right to attack another person, no matter what gender, no matter is it is physical or digital. Let's call it what it is: an ATTACK. These students should be kicked out of Stanford, and if possible criminal charges brought. If not, there is still the possibility of a civil suit for damaging Ms Bloch-Horowitz's education. I have fond memories of college as a wondrful atmosphere of learning and mutual respect. What has happene to Stanfordthat this is even possible?


2 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on May 28, 2015 at 2:28 pm

Alphonso is a registered user.

Joe Another thing missing from this story is the fact that certain SAE members apparently retaliated against one or more of their own members who were willing to talk to investigators. Those of you who want to expose all of the SAE members should try to respect the fact that SAE is made of of individuals and many of those individuals probably did nothing wrong. [Portion removed.]


11 people like this
Posted by Close it Down
a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2015 at 3:18 pm

For all the egregious wrongs its members have committed, SAE should lose its charter and be closed indefinitely. No second, third, fourth chances.


3 people like this
Posted by Jim
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 28, 2015 at 3:34 pm

All these issues raised in this debate indicate the immaturity of college students these days. I was very fortunate to go to a university where the administration provided helpful guidelines and rules to help the students progress from high school life to graduating into the real world. We had rules such as no alcohol at group functions and house mothers to help moderate behavior. The leadership of the modern university is totally lacking and it seems that student behavior is terrible. Get with it administrators. Give some guidance and get rid of alcohol at group functions.


12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 28, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Tess,

You're a hero! Clearly that fraternity needed to go the way of the dinosaurs.

Hamilton


7 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 28, 2015 at 5:16 pm

I will openly state I dislike frats. I am entitled to my opinion. It's based on minor personal contact and reading a lot of news reports as well as anecdotal statements from friends, students at many universities.
But then, when we read time and time again -- and now, in 2015 -- of AWFUL misbehavior, whether hazing or misogyny/sexual harassment/ drinking or non-drinking related crimes, and etc., it really seems like universities should take a much stronger stance against this misbehavior. I get the sense this has been soft-pedaled for years, while frat guys get to "use their connections" to their social and career advantage. Yuck. I am UNIMPRESSED with someone who touts that they are a frat member. Time for things to change.


2 people like this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 29, 2015 at 8:19 am

What's. The issue? They held a party, by all accounts a misdirected spadeful event, but she had the freedom to turn up decide if it was for her and then leave. There is no mention that the SAE people forced her to attend? I don't like rap music but do I go there concerts and then file charges for use of profanity?

This issue is ridiculous with too many do-gooders living in cotton wool. There young men with hormones. Should we put our heads in huge sand and try to raise androgynous robots? Let's remember, WWII and prior, young men would paint scantily clad women on everything from tanks to planes. This was endorsed. So pathetic the criminality we now expose to these hormones these days.

His a tip for the precious Stanford students and faculty. If you attend an ever that isn't for you or taste. Leave. Note however that the vast majority who do I stay, don't have a concern. Your minority voice doesn't need to be an extinguisher. Just as I don't try to stop a rap concert or naked art exhibition, or some other liberal love fest.


2 people like this
Posted by @Bunyip
a resident of another community
on May 29, 2015 at 12:16 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 29, 2015 at 12:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"Your minority voice doesn't need to be an extinguisher. "

Wrong - everyone has the responsibility to speak out against illegal behavior and a University has the responsibility to build character. Ignoring slave plantations did not solve the problem of slavery.

This is fundamentally an issue of leadership and that is why it is so sad that Stanford is not providing the leadership which does not tolerate this repeated inappropriate behavior.


8 people like this
Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 29, 2015 at 1:14 pm

Well said Peter.

I don't have a lot to add other than my continuing view that SAE should have lost its charter for this most recent episode of retaliation.

They are like the toddler throwing a fit in the candy aisle who gets a lecture but whose parent eventually relents and buys the candy. What will they do the next time they get to the candy aisle?

Leadership is more than some slogan on a picture of a golf course that you hang on the wall in Building 10. It is appalling to me that this fraternity was sanctioned for sexual harassment in 2009, then again in 2014, and then it retaliated against Tess and others, and got essentially another warning.

What does it mean to say that they are "not in good standing"? As I have said before, is that the same as Double Secret Probation?

This is not Animal House. Our female students deserve better than this.

As the saying goes, if nothing changes, nothing changes.


Like this comment
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 29, 2015 at 3:38 pm

@Peter Carpenter hyperbole to be comparing SAE to slavery. Think of Bay to Breakers or Folsom Street fair. Residents pay taxes and these are shared resources, why are debaucheros (sic) events allowed to be held? Where are the protests? How can we be so hypocritical, it's ok to run filthy events on a large scale, but a questionable private house party is out of the question. Students have the right to not attend any event they are not comfortable with, just like I don't attend any of these said street fairs. Do I want them to stop? Hell-no, society is about expressionism, variety, exposure to uncomfortable situations, good or bad. We need to stop thinking we can legislate everything. If STANFORD and parents raised their kids right, a moral code should prevail. Seeing the lack of nefarious activity on campus, I think these kids are ok. Promote choices, not shut downs. SAE should run a Folsom st fair @ Stanford event. Would probably be adopted and promoted by you and others.


Like this comment
Posted by @Bunyip
a resident of another community
on May 29, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Comparing apples and oranges does your case no good whatsoever.

Just stop it.


Like this comment
Posted by @bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 30, 2015 at 12:36 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by @Bunyip
a resident of another community
on May 30, 2015 at 1:41 pm

So tell me, do you have a problem understanding that SAE acted in a way that they deserved to be shut down?

Or is it perhaps that you happen to have connections to SAE, and that you are about to be kicked off of campus?

Hmmmmmm....


2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton
on May 30, 2015 at 1:45 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" You don't like it, go away."

Do you feel this way about robberies, rapes and muggings?

Just not your problem so "go away".

These are not artistic events about which people can and do have direct preferences/attitudes.

What if you are the one being robbed, raped or mugged? Do you want others to just "go away"?


Like this comment
Posted by @Bunyip
a resident of another community
on May 30, 2015 at 1:57 pm

[Post removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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