News

Office for Civil Rights opens sexual-assault investigation at Stanford University

Student alleges university violated Title IX in handling of her case

Stanford University has joined the growing list of universities under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights for violations of federal gender-equity law Title IX, according to a list released by the office Wednesday.

The investigation was opened at Stanford on Feb. 26 as the result of an Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint filed in December by student Leah Francis, who is alleging the university failed to promptly and equitably provide a response to and resolution for a sexual-assault report she filed in January 2014. Francis said she was sexually assaulted off campus on Jan. 1, 2014, by a male student with whom she had a previous romantic relationship but was not dating at the time.

Francis ignited a firestorm of student activism and attention around sexual assault on the Stanford campus last June when she publicly challenged the administration's handling of her case, alleging the university's investigation took more than twice as long as the 60 days recommended under Title IX and that the consequences imposed on her assailant, whom a university panel eventually found responsible for sexual assault through force and violation of university policy, fell short of his crime.

"I filed a complaint because I want future survivors at Stanford to receive better treatment than I did and feel safer on campus than I did, (to be) more protected by the university than I was," Francis told the Weekly Wednesday.

Francis' complaint alleges that Stanford failed to provide her with a prompt and equitable resolution for her sexual-assault complaint; to promptly and equitably respond to sexual-violence complaints, reports and incidents; and to provide prompt and equitable response to notices of sexual violence, (which) "allowed students to be subjected to a hostile environment on the basis of sex," Francis said.

The male student found responsible for assaulting Francis, a graduating senior whom she was instructed by the university not to name due to confidentiality issues, was at first suspended for five quarters – a suspension that would begin in the summer, after he graduated from Stanford – and required to complete 40 hours of community service and participate in an educational program on sexual assault awareness. Francis appealed these sanctions, demanding that the student be expelled. In response, Vice Provost of Student Affairs Greg Boardman ruled against expulsion, instead adjusting the sanctions to delay the male student's diploma for two years, but allowing him to return to campus in fall 2016 to attend graduate school.

Francis also filed a police report in her hometown of Juneau, Alaska, where the assault took place. The Juneau district attorney decided in August that he would not bring charges against the male student, also an Alaska resident, citing insufficient evidence. Under Alaska law, the standard for determining whether an assault is rape hinges on whether the victim verbally says "no" or does something to indicate strong lack of consent.

Francis joins the numerous college students across the country who have turned to the Office for Civil Rights in the hopes that the federal government will help to spur what they see as much-needed sexual-assault reform on their campuses. As of March 4, there were 106 sexual-violence cases under investigation at 101 universities across the country. Stanford as well as Washington and Lee University in Virginia, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Point Park University in Pennsylvania were among the latest, putting that number over 100. These cases were either by initiated by the federal body or, like in Francis' case, as a result of complaints filed by individuals.

The Office for Civil Rights does not disclose any details about its investigations other than when they were opened, though when they conclude, will provide upon request whether or not the office has entered into a resolution agreement to address compliance concerns at a particular school or found insufficient evidence of a Title IX violation there. Their investigations reach back three years and while might have been initiated by a single complaint, do not focus on that case exclusively.

"Stanford is aware of the Office for Civil Rights investigation and will cooperate fully," university spokeswoman Lisa Lapin wrote in an email statement. "Our policies for investigating and adjudicating sexual misconduct claims are in compliance with both the letter and spirit of Title IX, and we look forward to sharing them with the office."

Lapin said she is unaware of any prior OCR investigation at Stanford.

Francis said she hopes OCR will look into not just her case, but the many other cases of sexual-assault survivors at Stanford that she's aware of and make sure that all survivors are "treated with dignity and respect."

Related stories:

Student challenges university's handling of sexual assault case

Stanford students rally against sexual assault

Expelling students for sexual violence has been proposed before

Stanford creates committee to review sexual assault policy

Stanford students join in national sexual assault protest

Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Mar 4, 2015 at 8:59 pm

What happened in the courts? - was there a prosecution?


39 people like this
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 4, 2015 at 9:33 pm

I have to say, and this is rare, believe me, but I feel sorry for Stanford.
Accusation of an attack off campus, out of state, and the claimant demands the alleged attacker be dismissed from school BUT does not utilize police/criminal justice system in that other state. What the heck are universities supposed to do - oh, do whatever a claimant demands. It's a witch hunt, egged on by the feds, with the threat of withholding fed dollars from the university at large if the demands of the claimant are not endorsed WITHOUT EVIDENCE or WITNESSES! Incredible what our world has come to at this time. It's a different situation, of course, if an alleged attack/rape/assault takes place ON CAMPUS, that becomes relevant to the university.


25 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Mar 5, 2015 at 7:57 am

I was not following this case, but I wonder why so much is missing from this story - the same writer (of this story) wrote another story "Alaska DA will not bring charges in Stanford sexual-assault case" back in August 2014. In that story you get a much more balanced view of what happened - including this from the other side-

Kristin Swanson, an Alaska attorney representing the male student, has released a statement on his behalf. It maintains his innocence and condemns Stanford's investigation, which found him responsible for sexual assault.

"The Juneau Police Department and the Juneau District Attorney's office fully investigated the allegations and came to the correct decision not to charge him. No crimes were committed," the statement reads.

"While the Juneau Police were investigating the allegations, Stanford did their own civil investigation of an event the occurred off-campus, thousands of miles away. Universities lack the investigative capabilities and experience of law enforcement agencies and are ill-suited to handle a case like this one. Unfortunately, Stanford enabled false accusations and their faulty decision gave the accuser undue credibility."

Swanson also criticized the media and "various persons with their own personal and political agendas" for "fann(ing) the accusations without knowing the facts."

[Portion removed.]


4 people like this
Posted by seelam sea Reddy
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 5, 2015 at 10:49 am

It is the right thing to do by DOJ.

We cannot allow to keep things under the rug.

Due justice need to be prevailed.

I commend this action.

Respectfully


19 people like this
Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2015 at 10:52 am

@anonymous - If you feel bad for Stanford (I agree), how about the accused? He has been put through a public shaming, run off campus, and according to the DA for nothing.


9 people like this
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 5, 2015 at 8:41 pm

Retired Teacher is a registered user.

I often disagree with Stanford's positions on many issues, even though I'm a Stanford grad myself. But this time, I feel some sympathy for my alma mater. They have worked very hard to revise their policies on sexual conduct, and the committee they established to work on this was filled with distinguished and competent Stanford people. Admirable!

Stanford's decision in this case seemed balanced and careful. I don't like the standard they used to adjudicate the male student's guilt or innocence--a preponderance of evidence, vs beyond a reasonable doubt. But the final decision had a sense of balance to it.

On the other hand, as difficult as it might be to establish the facts of this case in Alaska, there's an impression of a less sympathetic culture there for victims of sexual assault. One can sympathize with Leah Francis and her situation. Does that sympathy extend to her actions at Stanford, which brought extreme activist pressure to bear on what should be a judicial process? I find it hard to sympathize with her actions, or those of her supporters, even as I feel for her psychic pain.

I have much less sympathy for the Office of Civil Rights. They may appear to be upholding justice and fair play. But another way to view them is that they are trying to rewrite the law of the United States without any judicial oversight, and that they are using their power to intimidate school systems, like the PAUSD, and universities and colleges, by forcing interpretations of the law, like the preponderance of evidence, versus beyond a reasonable doubt, by force, rather than by democratic process.

I hope that Stanford will stand firm for a reasonable sense of justice and fair play, regardless of the pressure the OCR will try to bring to bear on them.


4 people like this
Posted by Alphonso
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Mar 6, 2015 at 9:42 am

Alphonso is a registered user.

Several members of the Civil Rights Commission wrote this letter to Congress last week -
Gail Heriot, a law professor at the University of San Diego, and attorney Peter Kirsanow sent the letter last Thursday outlining the dangers of allowing the Department's Office for Civil Rights to continue adjudicating sexual assaults without providing due process rights to the students involved.
"We have noticed a disturbing pattern of disregard for the rule of law at OCR," the Heriot and Kirsanow wrote. "That office has all-too-often been willing to define perfectly legal conduct as unlawful."
Though OCR may claim to be under-funded, its resources are stretched thin largely because it has so often chosen to address violations it has made up out of thin air," the letter added. "Increasing OCR's budget would in effect reward the agency for frequently over-stepping the law. It also would provide OCR with additional resources to undertake more ill-considered initiatives for which it lacks authority."

One example the letter gave of such an overreach is of sexual assault enforcement at colleges and universities.

The letter states that the now-infamous 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter, which sparked the current issues with how sexual assault is handled on campus, required universities to lower the burden of proof used in disciplinary hearings from the "clear and convincing" evidence standard to the "preponderance of the evidence" standard. The lower standard requires administrators to be just 50.01 percent sure the accuser is telling the truth over the accused, which in today's society where there is immense federal pressure to expel accused students (whether there is even any evidence) makes it all the more dangerous.

The letter stated that nowhere in the text of Title IX, which has been used to justify the school's need to adjudicate outside the justice system, or in earlier Office for Civil Rights regulations does it state such a low burden be used.


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