A Stanford University task force charged with reviewing and issuing recommendations on sexual-assault policies and procedures is recommending a policy change still seen as radical for many colleges that any student found responsible for sexual assault be expelled.
This recommendation is one of many in a long-awaited report, released Wednesday, by an 18-member group of faculty, staff, students and one alumni who Provost John Etchemendy asked last summer to make recommendations in three areas: education and prevention; the support and response provided to students in the wake of an incident of sexual violence; and the policies and procedures to investigate and adjudicate cases of sexual violence.
But the most-anticipated recommendation for many student activists and survivors of sexual assault, both at Stanford and on other college campuses across the country, might be moving to expulsion as the "expected" consequence for sexual assault, as long as a three-member review panel unanimously finds the accused student responsible for such an act, the task force suggests.
The recommendation comes almost a year after Stanford students rallied around student Leah Francis, who publicly challenged the university after a fellow student found responsible for sexually assaulting her was not expelled, demanding at fierce campus protests that the university shift to this tougher sanction.
"If a student is found responsible for what can be understood to be an egregious violation of university policy, the expected sanction in such a case should be permanent separation from the university expulsion," the report reads. "Sexual assault is an example of such an egregious violation."
In a Q&A with the co-chairs of the provost's task force, Stanford Law School Dean Elizabeth Magill points to the definition of sexual assault under university policy as rationale for the new tougher sanction: "sex without consent through violence, force, menace or duress, or by causing someone to be incapacitated or taking advantage of someone who is incapacitated where incapacity is defined narrowly to be, essentially, where the affected party does not know what is going on around them."
"One does not accidentally do this," Magill said.
Though expulsion is the expected penalty, it is not the inevitable sanction.
"We also believe any policy should have some flexibility to anticipate unexpected circumstances that may arise," Magill added, "and that is why it is the 'expected' sanction."
The task force recommends that after the review panel determines that a student is responsible for violating university policy which must be a unanimous decision the panel should begin its consideration of possible consequences with the most serious sanction expulsion and only then consider lesser sanctions. The panel could also be tasked with creating sanctioning guidelines for certain kinds of violations to provide more consistency and better "guidance on how to determine proportionate and effective sanctions."
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, a staunch sexual-assault advocate deeply involved in the drafting of the university's current adjudication process, called the expectation of expulsion the "most important recommendation in the report."
"This is a big step forward, and I commend in particular the incredible effort of ASSU executive and task force co-chair Elizabeth Woodson for her achievement in bringing out this recommendation," Dauber said Wednesday.
ASSU executive and senior Benjy Mercer-Golden, who also served on the task force, said he was glad to see the report align with a policy that student government has been pushing for over the last year.
"Sexual assault seems to me to be the ultimate expression of conduct that would be sufficient cause for removal from the Universityit is one of the most serious forms of interpersonal violence one can commit and a deep violation of the mutual respect community members must uphold," he wrote in an email to the Weekly.
The task force's report the result of several months of work with more than 80 meetings and town halls, research on best practices and consultation with local and national experts on sexual assault describes the positive steps Stanford has taken in recent years to improve its handling of sexual assault but notes that "more needs to be done."
"The past quarter of a century of work on sexual violence at Stanford has produced notable changes, such as the adoption of a university policy on prohibited sexual conduct and the creation of and implementation of a sexual-assault specific adjudication process," the report reads.
"The Task Force has been concerned to learn, however, that the experience of some students following their encounter with sexual violence has remained constant. Students today, just as they have in the past, express concern about a confusing sometimes-inconsistent system of response and support a system that, despite good intentions, at times simply fails to provide some students the help they seek."
A "key" recommendation from the report is that the university streamline its response to and support of student sexual-assault victims, many of whom told the task force that the university process is difficult to understand, with many moving parts and different steps that involve different offices or individuals, and how the "decentralized, confusing system undermined their recovery and ... likely decreases reporting by others who experience sexual violence."
To combat this, the task force proposes the creation of a Confidential Support and Response Team composed of multiple fully dedicated, confidential counselors with professional backgrounds in psychology and/or social work who will, among other things: provide immediate crisis support to a student following an incident of sexual violence; inform them about university, civil, and criminal resources to help them sort through options and explain possible next steps; follow up with ongoing psychological care or refer the student to another professional trained in trauma response; and with the consent of the involved student, be responsible for case management and tracking, help the student understand reporting options and resources, and serve as a liaison between the student and all relevant university responders, according to the report.
"In this model, the number of people involved in any given case will not necessarily decrease, but each case will have a professional, fully dedicated point of contact to take responsibility for connections between the student and all other parties. We are optimistic that a shift from numerous people working in different offices to a unified team of fully dedicated, issue-area experts is essential for meeting our goal of providing a safe, encouraging, and respectful environment for survivors of sexual violence," the report states.
The task force is also recommending the university replace its current disciplinary process, known as the Alternate Review Process or ARP, with a new three-year pilot program that creates a single rather than bifurcated process for the investigation and adjudication of violations of university policy. (Currently, two entities participate in this process: the Title IX office and the Office of Community Standards.)
Also, instead of a five-member panel of trained faculty, staff and students, the task force suggests the panels be made up of three reviewers who are extensively trained, regularly sit on cases and are not undergraduate students.
The exclusion of undergraduates from the review panel is a significant change for the university. The task force said it came to a consensus on this point, acknowledging it is likely that undergraduate students' lives overlap in some way or students will know someone who knows the other people involved. More critical, though, is that having undergraduates serve as reviewers "sits uneasily" with the objective to have a panel that "is trained, experienced, and whose members are regularly hearing cases."
"As an undergraduate myself, I questioned this at first, because it's my identity and because I acknowledged the argument of having a 'jury of your peers,'" Woodson said in the university's Q&A. "But we thought about this for months, and it's from student feedback that we made this decision. Students expect an excellent process. For reviewers, this means consistency, ongoing and in-depth training, and regular panel participation over a multi-year term. It's challenging for an undergraduate student to make this the focus of their time here, which we will be asking of the faculty and staff members during their terms."
The task force acknowledges similar challenges with having graduate students serve as reviewers but notes some benefits: Graduate students would bring diversity, especially in age, experience, race, gender and sexual orientation; they are closer to the undergraduate experience than administrators or faculty; they are a more "diffuse" community with less likelihood of being connected to the involved students. Ultimately, the task force is leaving it up to the provost to decide whether or not graduates should serve on the panels.
Under a new policy proposed by the task force, cases might not reach a review panel if they instead first reach a resolution determined by the university's Title IX office, with the agreement of the students involved.
Dauber said the addition of such a resolution gives her some pause.
"This requires more thought because there is a risk when you create what is essentially a 'plea bargain' option that there will be unintended consequences," she said. This plea bargain could be a student-victim agreeing to resolution in order to avoid a lengthy and potentially painful hearing and the accused student agreeing to withdraw from the university instead of facing expulsion if he or she is found responsible for sexual assault, Dauber said.
"The non-hearing resolution is creating an informal mechanism, that, if it's not done thoughtfully, could create incentives that distort the entire process," she added.
The only similar policy that Stanford currently has in place is the "Early Resolution Option" for Honor Code violations, under which students who accept responsibility can avoid a hearing and receive the standard consequence for such violations, which is a one-quarter suspension. The policy includes specific rules for who is and is not eligible for this resolution option.
"The only benefit is the avoidance of a hearing," Dauber said. "If that is going to be the case here, then that could be fine. I am concerned that what is envisioned here is more on the nature of side deals made by lawyers to negotiate a quiet and confidential end to the proceeding with no student oversight or transparency. That could have the effect of turning the recommendation for mandatory expulsion into a tool of negotiating pressure rather than actual expulsions."
University spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, however, said that the concept of non-hearing resolution is "not new at Stanford."
"Non-hearing resolution is an umbrella term meant to encompass a range of solutions where a matter can be resolved without the need for a hearing, for example when the facts, and response to them, are not contested and the parties and the Title IX office agree on a disposition," Lapin wrote in an email to the Weekly.
The report also urges the university to explore the possibility of providing legal assistance to students who request it, citing concerns that the outcome of cases can depend on if one student has the means to obtain a high-quality attorney but the other does not.
The task force is also recommending increased communication about sexual assault, university processes and resources as well as enhanced training for faculty, staff and any potential first responders, including police, emergency medical personnel, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Vaden Health Center staff.
The report also urges "extensive and ongoing" education on sexual violence to achieve an ambitious goal of shifting campus culture and making Stanford a place "that does not tolerate sexual violence of any kind."
The university plans to follow through on a commitment to create and send out this year a campus-wide climate survey "to initiate an important drive for data," according to the report.
Etchemendy wrote in a letter to the university that he plans to form two implementation teams one focused on education and support systems and one focused on investigation and adjudication to move forward on as many as possible of the task force's recommendations in the coming academic year. The report also suggests that the university form a transition advisory committee, composed in part of task force members and one person in charge of gathering input directly from students, to oversee the rollout of the new pilot adjudication process, collect and share data and assess the university's efforts in the "challenging period of transition" that come in the wake of the report.
In the university's Q&A with Magill and Woodson, Woodson acknowledged the sensitive climate around sexual assault that erupted over the last year at Stanford.
"Students were upset over the last year, and there were a lot of feelings of mistrust," she said. "We acknowledge that and hope this is the beginning of rebuilding that trust. What we're setting out to achieve is a safe campus, built on respect, that puts student well-being as a priority. We feel the recommendations, if followed through, will do that."
Mercer-Golden said he's not sure if the report will restore student trust in the administration, but he has been "pleasantly surprised" by the progress Stanford has made over the last several months.
"I think there is a widespread sense nationally among many activists that universities are mostly just trying to protect their reputations," he said. "I've been pleasantly surprised by the progress we've made over the last six months or so with the administrationI definitely praise them for committing a lot of time, money and energy to this issue. But this isn't the end of the road and I hope administrators and students alike realize we've got a great deal more to do to make Stanford a respectful, healthy campus, free of sexual violence."
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to collect news articles, social media reaction and other content related to the ongoing sexual assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to Storify.com.