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."