A former Stanford University student whose 2014 sexual-assault case spurred campus protests and national media attention has said the university recently offered her $60,000 to cover her therapy expenses, on the condition that she withdraw a federal complaint she filed against Stanford.
Leah Francis, who publicly challenged Stanford's handling of her report that a male Stanford student sexually assaulted her off campus, launched a GoFundMe campaign on Wednesday to raise money to cover her counseling expenses rather than accept Stanford's offer.
Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin defended Stanford against Francis' charges, stating that "recent allegations fundamentally misrepresent what has occurred in discussions between Stanford and complainants in Title IX cases."
The university has requested permission from Francis to publicly share specific information about the case, Lapin said, but Francis' attorneys have not responded.
"Stanford continues to believe it is ethically bound to the confidentiality provisions of the settlement discussion process," she wrote in an email.
Francis said in an interview with the Weekly Wednesday that Stanford's legal team recently reached out to her with the settlement offer, which she initially viewed as a "good faith effort" after more than two years of battling with the university.
In 2014, Stanford found the male student, her former boyfriend, responsible for assaulting Francis. Stanford delayed his degree for two years and asked that he complete community service hours and education on sexual-assault awareness but allowed him to return this fall to attend graduate school -- sanctions that Francis unsuccessfully appealed.
Francis said that Stanford previously offered her more money —- $95,000 —- with the explicit condition that she drop a complaint she filed in December 2014 with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), alleging that Stanford failed to promptly and equitably provide a response to and resolution for her sexual-assault report. She declined.
Stanford had previously provided her about $25,000 for therapy, housing and tuition expenses, she said, the bulk of which was to compensate her for staying at Stanford for two extra quarters due to a reduced course load she took after reporting her assault.
It was only after the settlement was drawn up this time, Francis said, that Stanford officials told her they expected her to drop the federal complaint.
"Stanford's strategy appears to be to dangle badly needed money for mental health services in front of survivors in exchange for secrecy," she wrote on her GoFundMe campaign page. "But I #wontsettleforsilence. I want to keep the door open for Stanford administration to get the guidance they need from OCR to improve how they treat sexual assault victims."
Lapin did not confirm that Stanford proactively offered the settlement; instead, she said that the university, in settlement discussions, typically responds to demands from opposing lawyers.
"Generally, and as is customary in such situations, when Stanford considers a financial settlement in response to a demand from a lawyer threatening a lawsuit, the university requires that the party receiving the money withdraw any personal claims under which they could receive more money for the same matter -- in this case, through the OCR process," she said. "But such a step would not curtail any investigation."
OCR, however, "lacks the authority" to order a school to provide individual remedies to any complainant, said Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who has long supported sexual-assault survivors on campus, including Francis.
While a university could theoretically face loss of federal funds as enforcement action for Title IX violations, individual remedies, such as funding for counseling, would have to be voluntarily agreed to, Dauber said.
According to Dauber, Lapin's contention that the Office for Civil Rights would proceed with an investigation if Francis withdrew her complaint is speculative.
"Although OCR would not have to cease an investigation just because a complaint is withdrawn, it also would not be obligated to continue it," Dauber said. "As everyone knows, OCR is an overburdened and underfunded agency and it seems entirely likely that if all the complaints were withdrawn OCR might well decide to close an investigation and focus its limited resources elsewhere."
Francis' GoFundMe campaign goal is $11,000 — enough to pay for two years of therapy, she estimates.
Francis said she has thus far paid $5,500 per year for therapy stemming not just from the assault, but "the way that Stanford handled it," referring to that time period as "that lost year of my life." She said she has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said she will donate any money she raises beyond the $11,000 to the YWCA and the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). As of Thursday morning she had raised more than $2,000.
Lapin said Stanford has been "fully cooperating" with the Office for Civil Rights and "does not have and has never had the intention of curtailing any federal Title IX investigation, nor could it do so even if it desired to."
"We look forward to having all the facts in these cases come out publicly in court, as privacy law precludes us from discussing the facts otherwise," Lapin said. (Since Francis has not sued Stanford, her case is not in court and Office for Civil Rights investigations do not result in the public release of evidence it gathers. OCR resolution agreements and findings, redacted to protect the privacy of witnesses and complainants, are available when a case concludes but normally only provided to the school and the complainant.)
"The university has nothing to hide about its handling of these cases and has no desire to keep any sexual assault survivor from talking about any criticisms they may have of Stanford or its processes," Lapin said.
Francis, for her part, maintains that Stanford's strategy "has been to go to these individuals and try to buy them off."
"It's the opposite of the kind of transparency that I would want to see at an ethical research university," Francis said.
Dauber said Wednesday that Stanford should view the Office for Civil Rights as a "partner in improving practices."
"In my view we should not be trying to shut that (OCR) process down but should be willing and open to improve," Dauber said. "And ... we should always provide mental health counseling support for any student who has been sexually assaulted at Stanford without any preconditions."
Stanford provides access to free confidential counselors for current students who report sexual violence. For someone who is no longer a student, Stanford will consider providing funds to continue their mental-health care, Lapin said.
It's not uncommon for the university to provide financial help to both current and former students for outside counseling, Dauber said.
Francis' allegations about the settlement agreement came two days after another female Stanford student filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging it acted with "deliberate indifference" to her and other students' reports of sexual violence to the point of violating her civil rights.
Equal Rights Advocates, a San Francisco-based legal organization, helped file the lawsuit. The group is also representing Francis in her Office for Civil Rights filing and two of the other Stanford women who have filed complaints.
Besides Francis' case, three others OCR cases at Stanford remain open and under investigation. Lapin would not say whether Stanford had made similar offers to those complainants.
The online news outlet BuzzFeed reported that at least one other OCR complainant said Stanford made her a similar settlement offer that she turned down.
Equal Rights Advocates declined to comment for this story.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created an archive of past 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/paloaltoweekly.