Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 6, 2014

Student challenges university's Stanford's handling of sexual-assault case

Senior alleges administration mishandled case after she was assaulted off campus

by Elena Kadvany

A 21-year-old Stanford University student is challenging the administration's handling of a sexual-assault case she reported at the beginning of this year, alleging the investigation has taken more than twice as long as the 60 days recommended under federal law and that the consequences imposed on her assailant fall short of his crime.

Leah Francis, an English major from Alaska, said she was sexually assaulted off campus Jan. 1 by another Stanford student, a man with whom she had a previous romantic relationship but was not dating at the time. She reported the assault to the university on Jan. 7 and for the next five months waited for the administration to take action through its Alternative Review Process (ARP), a disciplinary procedure designated for serious allegations of misconduct relating to sexual assault, sexual harassment, relationship violence or stalking.

"It's been a five-month nightmare where I haven't been able to do anything but either be in the process of frantically trying to produce a document or be in some kind of interim where I'm waiting for some kind of terrifying answer or judgment," Francis said.

The male student, whom Francis has been instructed by the university not to name due to confidentiality issues, was formally notified on April 9 that he was being charged with violating the university's sexual-assault policy, according to an appeal of his sanctions that Francis later issued. On April 25, a five-member ARP panel reviewing the case issued its "determination of responsibility," voting 4-1 for sexual assault, 5-0 for sexual misconduct and 5-0 for violating the university's Fundamental Standard, a policy that governs student behavior both within and outside Stanford, according to Francis' appeal.

On May 6, the ARP reviewers handed down a determination of sanctions, suspending the student for five quarters beginning this summer as well as requiring him to complete 40 hours of community service and participate in an educational program on sexual-assault awareness. Though it was recommended that he be relocated from university housing "to a location at a reasonable distance" from Francis' residence, he remained in housing down the street from her for the next two weeks, she said.

Francis condemns the university for moving too slowly. The pace has exacerbated the intense emotional duress she's suffered as a result of the Jan. 1 assault, she said.

"I have experienced psychological and physical symptoms including panic attacks, depression, anxiety, nightmares and inability to sleep," she wrote in a May 21 appeal of the university's sanctions.

"My education has been severely and detrimentally impacted, and my goals and plans have been derailed. My ability to trust people and to have satisfying relationships with men have been damaged, if not completely destroyed. I have lost my sense of personal safety and security."

"It's just been really hard to know that he could be behind any corner on campus for this long," she added.

It was not until Francis approached Stanford law professor Michele Dauber for help, hoping a tenured professor could aid her case, that the university removed the male student from campus housing, Francis said.

"There were a number of factors in her case that I felt were not up to the standard that Stanford should be achieving on these matters," Dauber said. "No institution is perfect, but it fell below the standard I felt Stanford should be meeting."

Dauber, who helped create the ARP in 2010, helped Francis wade through the process and draft documents she had to provide the university.

"This is why I think that every student that goes through ARP should have an advocate, a case worker who's a tenured professor at Stanford who ... is cc'ed on every email, can hold (the administration) accountable, (can) explain the process to survivors and lay out the options and provide some help producing these documents on which their chances on justice rely."

Francis has appealed the university's recommended sanctions. Her appeal provides exhaustive, intimate detail of the events leading up to the assault, the assault itself, her interaction with the male student afterward — he at first acknowledged the assault and apologized before reversing his position on what happened — and efforts she's made since then to seek disciplinary action.

She's urging that the male student be expelled, citing the physical, emotional and financial duress he inflicted on her (financial because she is now graduating next year instead of this June) as well as the danger he poses to other Stanford students.

"As soon as you have someone who's found responsible for sexual assault on campus, you have to get them off campus," she said.

Her appeal also cites a May 7 incident in which a male student she did not know entered her room in the middle of the night and started screaming, "Don't you think he would have been punished if he had actually done it?"

"He was basically demonstrating the general expectation of people that punishments do match crimes, especially one being dealt with by an institution that they trust like a lot of students (who) trust that the administration will know how to handle these things," Francis said.

Lisa Lapin, associate vice president for university communications, wrote in an email: "Expulsion currently is one of a range of potential outcomes of the disciplinary process for cases of sexual assault at Stanford, and we are discussing the option of imposing it as the presumptive outcome when there is a finding of forcible sexual assault."

She also said that the university "take(s) very seriously the pain and trauma that are generated by sexual assault."

"We have strengthened our programs in the area of sexual assault response and prevention over the last several years, seeking to provide support to individuals in crisis, encourage reporting, ensure fair and thorough disciplinary processes, and educate the community to prevent future incidents," she wrote. "But we are always looking to improve what we do, and we genuinely welcome input from students on how we can do better."

Expulsion as a consequence for committing sexual assault is rare in Stanford history. Out of nine cases since 2005 in which sexual assault was established to have occurred, eight resulted in suspension — usually for the time period the victim remained at school, ranging from as low as one quarter to as long as eight — and only one in expulsion in the 2006-07 academic year, a case involving multiple victims and violations, Dauber said. Francis said that the expelled student was also allowed back to Stanford eventually.

"That's the kind of thing that wears on you and makes you really cynical," Francis said, "and I don't want to be cynical. ... Maybe I figured out why only 13 people have gone through ARP and only nine have discovered responsibility, and of those nine, only one has been expelled, but they weren't really expelled because they were allowed back to Stanford afterward."

The case is still ongoing, with the male student recently appealing the reviewers' determination of responsibility. According to Francis' appeal, he is claiming he committed the assault during his sleep. The assault took place during winter break at his home out of state.

The student is no longer allowed on campus without a Department of Public Safety escort, cannot contact Francis under a no-contact order that was instituted since she reported the assault (though she said he violated it on at least one occasion) and cannot walk at commencement next weekend but will receive his diploma and return to Stanford for a master's program after his suspension, Francis said.

Francis said she's speaking publicly now to shine light on not only the administration's handling of her particular case but also on broader flaws in its sexual-assault procedures and policies.

She and other students organized a rally in White Plaza for Thursday, after the Weekly's press deadline, to demand reforms such as mandatory expulsion for individuals found responsible for sexual assault (a policy change that Dartmouth College, Amherst College and Duke University have recently made); better enforcement of sanctions for assailants to comply with Title IX; expanded mandatory education on definitions, consent and bystander intervention for all undergraduates; increased staff at the university's Sexual Assault & Relationship Abuse Education & Response (SARA) office; and better resources for assault survivors throughout the process, including safety measures and academic support.

Though Francis is urging expulsion as part of her sanctions appeal, she said what she wants is for Stanford to make its best effort to implement these reforms for future students.

"The more time went on the more I realized, it doesn't actually matter if he's expelled. It doesn't actually matter what happens to him. But what does matter is that instead of remaining silent because the university is holding any chance of justice I might have over my head, I must speak out so that no one has to go through the process that I went through again because I barely survived it," Francis said.

She said Thursday that she has been told Boardman will issue a decision on her appeal early next week.

Francis joins many other college students who have spoken out in recent years to condemn their administrations' handling of sexual-assault cases. On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights released a list of 55 colleges and universities under investigation for possible violations of Title IX due to the schools' handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Online Editor Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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