WOMEN
06/12/2016 07:40 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2016

Ken Burns Implores Stanford Graduates To Believe Sexual Assault Survivors

Students also demonstrated at commencement over how Stanford has addressed sexual violence.
YouTube/The Huffington Post

During a commencement speech at Stanford University on Sunday, filmmaker Ken Burns made a plea for graduates to believe survivors of sexual assault. 

"Look, I am the father of four daughters," Burns said. "If someone tells you they've been sexually assaulted, take it effing seriously and listen to them."

The comment elicited a large round of applause from the audience in Stanford Stadium. 

Burns referenced a letter written by a woman who was sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus in January 2015 by Brock Turner, who was then a freshman at the university. The letter, which Turner's victim read aloud at his sentencing this month, circulated widely and drew international attention to the case. Turner received a six-month jail sentence for three felony counts of sexual assault, a sentence most people have called far too lenient.

"Maybe someday we will make the survivor's eloquent statement as important as Dr. King's letter from a Birmingham jail," Burns said. (The 1963 letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed a moral responsibility to use nonviolent activism to overturn racist Jim Crow laws.)

Graduates, meanwhile, carried signs at commencement standing in support with Turner's victim and decrying how the California university has handled sexual violence among students. In recent years, students protested Stanford's survey of campus sexual assault, which they called skewed, and instances where they said the university was too lenient with students who committed assault.

Over 130,000 people have signed an online petition in the past week calling on Stanford to apologize to Turner's victim for the assault that took place on the university's campus. Activists have not accused Stanford of mishandling Turner's case but said in recent days they believe the school could be doing more to assist the woman and reform university policies. 

"They never publicly apologized to the survivor, the university never offered her accommodations like counseling services," Matthew James Baiza, a Stanford  undergraduate who started the petition, told The Huffington Post. "It's important because if we're going to try to show our university supports survivors, then when the legal system has found the perpetrator guilty, it should take those steps."

Stanford, for its part, said in a statement last week that 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."

Signs against protecting rapist are seen during the commencement ceremony at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, o
GABRIELLE LURIE via Getty Images
Signs against protecting rapist are seen during the commencement ceremony at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, on June 12, 2016. Stanford students are protesting the university's handling of rape cases alleging that the campus keeps secret the names of students found to be responsible for sexual assault and misconduct.
A plane flies over Stanford University with a banner reading 'Protect Survivors. Not Rapists. #PerskyMustGo' during the comme
GABRIELLE LURIE via Getty Images
A plane flies over Stanford University with a banner reading 'Protect Survivors. Not Rapists. #PerskyMustGo' during the commencement ceremony at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, on June 12, 2016.
A woman carries a sign in solidarity for a Stanford rape victim during graduation at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, Calif
GABRIELLE LURIE via Getty Images
A woman carries a sign in solidarity for a Stanford rape victim during graduation at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, on June 12, 2016.
Signs against protecting rapist are seen during the commencement ceremony at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, o
GABRIELLE LURIE via Getty Images
Signs against protecting rapist are seen during the commencement ceremony at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, California, on June 12, 2016.

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter focusing on higher education and sexual violence and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade. 

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