Four young women who said they were sexually assaulted during their time at Stanford University told an audience of 150 students, faculty and others on Monday night stories not of their assaults, but of a university whose handling of their cases made them feel, as one student put it, like "there is no justice on this campus."
Three current students and one recent graduate spoke as part of a Congressional summit on campus sexual assault featuring Rep. Jackie Speier, who has proposed legislation to strengthen enforcement and increase transparency around college sexual assault and a separate bill aimed at supporting sexual-assault victims in the military.
Monday's event was organized by a new, unofficial student group called One in Five a reference to the now-ubiquitous statistic of college women who are sexually assaulted that is working to increase awareness and education around sexual violence at Stanford. The summit, which was sponsored by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, the Feminist Gender and Sexuality Studies Program and the Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, was the student group's inaugural event.
Leah Francis, a recent Stanford graduate whose decision to go public with her sexual-assault case in June of 2014 ignited a firestorm of student activism around sexual assault on campus, said that the adjudication process she went through, known as the Alternate Review Process, or ARP, "was almost traumatic as the rape itself."
"The whole process took more than twice as long as it was supposed to take," she said. "I spent a lot of time trying to complete coursework while reliving trauma (and) trying to advocate for myself while it felt like the university was trying to crush me. I wrote over 100 pages in order to try to represent myself without legal help in something that felt like a fight against the university."
Francis has since filed a federal Title IX complaint against Stanford with the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleging the university failed to promptly and equitably provide a response to and resolution for a sexual-assault report she filed in January 2014.
The Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into her complaint in February. Stanford is currently under investigation for three additional Title IX complaints, according to a list released by the Office for Civil Rights.
A second female student on the panel, "Sarah," who requested anonymity to protect her privacy, began her speech by asking the audience filling the Black Community Services Center to close their eyes.
"Imagine you are asleep," she continued. "Now, suddenly, someone violently shoves their hand down your pants and penetrates you. Would you call this rape, or would you call it, like Stanford did, misconduct?"
Sarah said she was assaulted by another Stanford student, also a residential assistant, while she was asleep this past summer. She immediately reported the incident to the university's Title IX office and characterized the ensuing investigation as inadequate and stacked against her. She described the hearing held as part of the university's adjudication process as the "kangaroo court" and the entire Title IX process like the "wild wild West," where "university officials are like town sheriffs and they hold absolute power."
Sarah said she was also frustrated that she could not file a complaint about the Title IX office. The university's Office of the Ombuds "an impartial dispute resolver who strives to see that faculty, staff and students at the university are treated fairly and equitably," the office's website reads told her if she was being mistreated by a university official or staff member with regard to a Title IX investigation, her complaint would go to the very office she was complaining about.
"There is no way to report mishandling, and there is no check and balance of power," she said. "There is no justice on this campus."
She and other students described the costs of sexual assault, from the physical and emotional to academic and financial. She said she only passed one class last quarter. Another student said her residential dean, who was serving as her Title IX support person, suggested she leave Stanford following a suicide attempt.
"Three months later, the man who assaulted me is found responsible but not suspended or expelled," the second student said. "Although responsible for the trauma to my vagina, my brain and my body, he will not halt his education, although I did. I guess wanting to die is more of a liability than ruining his life."
Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the university cannot comment on any specific cases but noted Stanford "has been very, very active working on its sexual assault adjudication, investigations, student support, prevention (and) education" over the last several years.
"I think that the university's efforts are quite clear," Lapin told the Weekly. "We've put a lot of effort into sexual assault. It's something that the campus takes incredibly seriously. It's something that's a deep concern of the university leadership. They've put considerable resources into the whole area."
Sarah proposed that the federal government standardize the Title IX process: create a standard Title IX investigation and hearing procedure, explicitly define categories of sexual violence and corresponding consequences, assign an Office for Civil Rights official to every university or region to serve as a point person for students who feel their university's response is falling short.
Speier's new bill, the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency (HALT) on Campus Sexual Assault Act, seeks to do some of that.
The HALT Act would bring, among other changes: annual, standard climate surveys to be reported locally at each university in the country; fines issued by the Department of Education for noncompliance with civil-rights requirements; increased penalties for violating the Clery Act, which requires colleges to report statistics around sexual violence; public disclosure of all resolution agreements between higher-education institutions and the Department of Education; increased funding for Title IX and Clery Act investigators; expansion of requirements for notifying and publicly posting students' legal rights and institutions' obligations under Title IX; and allow individuals the right to take legal action in court.
"Students and parents deserve to know which institutions are safe and that failure to protect victims results in tangible consequences. Many colleges have swept these crimes under the rug to avoid bad publicity, loss of enrollment and federal funding," Speier said in a press release announcing the bill's introduction last year. "They have put protecting their reputations above protecting their student bodies. I have met with rape survivors who shared their traumatic experiences of being ostracized as their perpetrators were allowed to continue their studies and prey on other students.
"It's going to take money, increased transparency, enforcement and a dramatic change in the culture to end the epidemic of campus sexual assault. Students need to have the confidence that they can seek a higher education in a safe environment. They should be worried about registering for classes and not registering complaints," Speier said in the press release.
Speier noted on Monday that there has already been swift and strong reaction to the HALT Act: A new bill sponsored by three Republican congressmen, dubbed the Safe Campus Act, would prohibit colleges and universities from investigating sexual assault cases until the victim reports the crime to police.
"What does that tell you? It should tell all of us that nothing would happen at all," Speier said of the Safe Campus Act. "It would be taking us back into the Dark Ages."
Speier spoke repeatedly to the power of student activism to "change a culture that must be changed." Student advocacy efforts around sexual assault were reignited this year at Stanford by several members of a new Sophomore College class on sexual assault that Stanford law professor and sexual-assault reform advocate Michele Dauber taught this summer. (Following some "unpopular" activism students engaged in for their final projects, the class is now under review and might not continue for a second year, Dauber said at a faculty panel on sexual assault earlier on Monday.)
One of those students, Stephanie Pham, co-founder of new student group One in Five, stood at White Plaza with nine other students during New Student Orientation in September, each holding signs that spelled out "RAPE HAPPENS HERE." Other students passed out informational fliers with statistics around sexual assault and related resources at Stanford, seeking to educate new students during the first few weeks of school when female college students are thought to be at higher risk of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault.
"With One in Five, we want to promote sustained efforts among students in order to truly create a climate on campus that shows that students are here to listen to, believe and support survivors," Pham said Monday.
The group, which has 10 founding members at least 50 students interested in joining, hopes to plan further events, bring speakers to campus, promote peer-based educational efforts and work collaboratively with the administration and other campus organizations "to foster a campuswide effort" to address sexual assault, she said. One in Five has applied to be an official university student organization.
Monday's Congressional summit came on the heels of the release of Stanford's climate survey on sexual assault, the results of which immediately met strong criticism from student activists and faculty.
They said the 1.9 percent rate of sexual assault at Stanford could not be accurate it amounts to one in 50 compared to the oft-cited one in five statistic and that survey methodology created that and other misleading results.
"One of the things that to me was worrisome about the public discussion of these data is that it happened just as our new group of freshmen was coming on campus," Dauber said at a faculty panel on sexual assault that took place just before the Congressional summit on Monday. "I feel like it was running counter to our interest in prevention education."
Dauber and other faculty members, including Shelley Correll, director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, have requested that further survey analysis be conducted, as was promised in the survey release.
Other efforts are gathering momentum on campus. Dauber and Correll, with others, organized the Monday faculty panel to educate other faculty members about the survey results and broader issues on campus, with the goal of getting more faculty involved in what is largely a student-driven issue.
And beginning in January, Stanford plans to implement a major recommendation made last spring by the provost's Task Force on Sexual Assault Policies and Practices, an 18-member group of students, faculty, staff and alumni charged with making recommendations around policy, education, training, support services and other related realms. Their recommendation was to replace the university's current judicial procedure, ARP, with a pilot process that would, in theory, streamline and reform what student survivors have described as a drawn-out, re-traumatizing experience.
The new "Stanford Title IX Process" will bring Title IX investigations under one office rather than the current two; include hearing panels that are drawn from a pool of regularly trained and experienced faculty, staff and graduate students (no longer undergraduate students); allow both parties in a case to receive up to six hours of paid legal assistance if they wish; and implement a default sanction of expulsion for any student found unanimously responsible for sexual assault.
The university is currently seeking feedback on the new process, which Stanford said in a press release "would maximize consistency and minimize procedural delays when the university investigates allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct involving students."
Stanford has also established a team of confidential sexual-assault counselors who are available for consultation 24 hours a day. The university plans to expand the team of two to five staff members this school year.
Stanford is currently in the midst of conducting a search for a new Title IX coordinator following the resignation of Catherine Criswell before the start of the school year. Cathy Glaze, a Stanford Law School associate dean for student affairs, is currently serving as the interim coordinator.
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.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct information that stated four female Stanford students spoke at the Congressional summit; there were three current students and one recent graduate.