Peterson: Moving Toward Trial

January 29, 2004

Peterson poll rattles faculty

Stephen Schoenthaler, the California State University, Stanislaus, professor at the center of the Scott Peterson survey scandal, was ordered to stop the poll late last fall.

That's according to Jeanette Sereno, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Stanislaus State. She wrote last week to a faculty e-mail discussion group that Schoenthaler was told to stop after students pleaded with other professors to intervene.

"They came screaming," Sereno said Tuesday, adding that students were complaining about lack of time to complete the work. "Within a week we had a department meeting."

The survey, designed to gauge bias against Peterson, became controversial in early January when nine students told The Bee that they fabricated data because they were short on time and money needed to finish the assignment.

Peterson, accused of killing his wife and unborn son, will be tried in San Mateo County. Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Al Girolami ruled this month that Peterson could not receive a fair trial in Modesto.

The Schoenthaler survey was one of three surveys Girolami considered and part of six broad factors he weighed, ranging from the nature of the crime to the size of the community.

Sereno's e-mail was the latest in a week of chatter on the faculty network about cheating and plagiarism. She said Tuesday that she did not know that the public could access the discussions.

Sereno said she would not elaborate on what she wrote. "The school's asked us to let them go through the process of their investigation (into survey fabrication allegations) so I need to respect that," she said.

Schoenthaler is no longer teaching this term, which ends Wednesday, and has not been teaching for the past "few days," Stanislaus State spokesman Don Hansen said. "A collaboration of faculty are completing the class for him," Hansen said.

University Vice Provost Diana Demetrulias, who is heading the investigation into the survey and Schoenthaler's role in it, said that as of Wednesday no actions relating to her inquiry have been taken. The investigation targets students and Schoenthaler, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

One student who made up data said he has received a letter from the university notifying students that the university had seized survey information they had submitted, and that officials would try to verify answers by calling phone numbers listed in the data.

"They will find out I did put fake answers on there," the 23-year-old said.

E-mail asserts students objected to survey

The students, facing discipline ranging from a warning to expulsion, have asked to remain unidentified.

A 22-year-old senior said some students have conferred with lawyers. Most are waiting for officials to contact them with interview requests, she said.

Sereno's e-mail to colleagues, meanwhile, outlined what happened after Schoenthaler handed out the assignment:

Students objected immediately. "These objections were perfunctorily dismissed by the instructor," Sereno wrote.

Students have said they had two weeks to complete the assignment, but that included Thanksgiving and finals weeks. Modesto attorney Ernie Spokes, who represents Schoenthaler, said Wednesday students had two weeks to do a four-hour assignment.

Students then went to other faculty for intervention.

The Criminal Justice Department held a meeting to discuss the problem.

The department chair, program coordinator and a senior faculty member met with Schoenthaler. He was advised that, among other problems, the survey was not in compliance with appropriate practices and relevant laws. He was told to stop immediately.

"We all go to vacation thinking everything's been stopped," Sereno said Tuesday. "Suddenly it's in the paper and we're going, 'What?' Next thing you know, he's in court and we're saying 'what' again."

Professor Paul O'Brien, department chairman, confirmed Wednesday that a meeting took place. He would not comment on whether he told Schoenthaler to stop the survey.

O'Brien said the concern was whether Schoenthaler had followed policies covering survey research.

One faculty member, who asked not to be identified, said there was some discussion among faculty at the time over whether a department chairman can tell a survey-giver to stop. It's a "gray area," the source said.

School policy may be changed

O'Brien said he plans to add guidelines for conducting such research into a department policy handbook.

Spokes said his client was not asked at the December meeting to cancel the survey. "Knowing Schoenthaler, if he was told to stop, he'd stop," Spokes said.

He said there was some discussion at the meeting about an "administrative glitch with the (university's Institutional Review Board)."

He said Schoenthaler had submitted this type of project to the board in the past, but not this specific project. There was a question over whether that was necessary, Spokes said.

Demetrulias said earlier that federal rules require any data collection done by "human research subjects" -- students -- to get approval.

Bee staff writer Melanie Turner can be reached at 578-2366 or

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley contributed to this report.

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