The Yale Divinity School is launching focus groups to gather feedback from students on the school’s sexual climate, in light of Yale’s participation in a national survey on students’ experiences around sexual misconduct in 2015.

The Association of American Universities’ 2015 study, the Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct, surveyed 27 universities across the United States to gather information on the problem of sexual misconduct on college campuses. While the survey revealed a surprisingly high incidence of sexual misconduct at Yale, Dean of the Divinity School Gregory Sterling said it was too broad to reveal school-specific occurrences of sexual misconduct.

Three years later, the Divinity School is implementing its first focus groups on sexual misconduct, which will convene from April 2 to 13. According to Sterling, the purpose of these focus groups is to ascertain sexual misconduct challenges facing the Divinity School, so that administrators can address those concerns at a more granular level.

“The problem we had was trying to interpret the data we got from the AAU survey, which simply wasn’t helpful in many cases,” Sterling said. “What we need is a much more nuanced understanding of the experiences people at the Divinity School have so that we can respond appropriately.”

According to Sterling, the Divinity School has dramatically expanded its sexual misconduct-related resources for students and faculty over the last two years. These changes include expanding the coverage of topics related to sexual misconduct during student orientation, hosting film screenings and discussions about the issue and providing annual Title IX training sessions for faculty members, Sterling said.

He added that the focus groups, which mark the Divinity School’s newest addition to these resources, will consist of a small group of students led by a trained facilitator, who will report the group’s results to the school’s administrators. He noted that although the Divinity School community’s awareness of sexual misconduct has improved over the last two years, he hopes the focus groups will allow students to be “open and candid in a nonthreatening environment.”

For the most part, the Divinity School has not been a focus of campuswide discussions about sexual assault, which have largely revolved around undergraduate fraternities. But in the fall, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn confirmed that a former Divinity School professor, Jamie Lara, had been removed from the church in the 1990s for abusing minors.

The Divinity School’s focus group sessions on sexual misconduct will not be the first such meetings to take place at Yale. In an email to the News, University Title IX Coordinator Stephanie Spangler said that Title IX administrators conducted a University-wide sexual climate assessment in 2013, which used focus groups to gain insight into students’ experiences. Spangler said the study revealed the need for more localized initiatives for combating issues of sexual misconduct.

“One observation from that initiative was that [sexual] climate is very much locally determined, and some of the current, school-specific focus group initiatives are designed to better understand those local, school-specific factors that influence the climate and individuals’ experiences at the school,” Spangler said. “Each of these initiatives helps us learn more about what we can do — collectively and individually, locally and more broadly — to ensure that Yale is a respectful and supportive place where all can thrive.”

Earlier this semester, the Yale Law School held a series of focus group sessions on sexual misconduct. According to Ellen Cosgrove, associate dean of the Law School and deputy Title IX coordinator, the students who participated in the sessions said they appreciated the opportunity to share their personal experiences. She added that the information from the focus groups will be used to “refine messaging” and “enhance existing programming” related to sexual misconduct at the Law School.

Megan McDermott DIV ’18, coordinator of the Yale Divinity School Women’s Center, said the focus groups will be crucial to sparking conversation about sexual misconduct, since many students are otherwise not willing to voice their concerns and experiences.

“People experiencing those incidents are minimizing them to themselves or do not want to face the process of formally addressing them,” McDermott said. “I hope that these focus groups would allow for the telling of stories that never make it to a Title IX Coordinator, the SHARE Center or an administrator’s desk, but which have a tremendous influence on how students experience campus culture.”

Amber Hu |