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Report called a 'first step' in improving Stanford's Title IX process

Of 36 sexual-assault cases under investigation, eight have gone to a formal hearing

In the first 15 months of a new Title IX adjudication process at Stanford University, campus officials have formally investigated 36 sexual-violence cases, four of which resulted in a finding of responsibility and consequence for the offending student.

These are among a series of statistics on campus sexual violence released in a new Title IX progress report written by Stanford's new provost, Persis Drell. It offers a small window into the inner workings of the university's Title IX office, which investigates reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment and dating violence on campus and has been the subject of student and faculty criticism in recent years.

Drell described the report as a "first step" toward increased transparency around the Title IX process, which was launched as a three-year pilot in February 2016. The university intends to release an annual report on the process and is gathering more detailed data about campus sexual misconduct, Drell wrote in a letter to the Stanford community.

"I believe it's important to provide the community with a view of the outcomes of the investigation and adjudication process, given our shared interest as a community in combatting sexual violence," she wrote, noting that approximately 40 percent of undergraduate women surveyed in 2015 said they had experienced sexual violence of some kind at Stanford. "This letter is a start."

The majority of cases the university has investigated involve undergraduates with women as the "complaining" students, or alleged victims, though there have been cases involving graduate students and men as victims as well, Drell wrote.

So far, 29 of the 36 cases have completed the investigation process; the others are ongoing. The report does not specify what type of offenses these cases involved, which could range from nonconsensual sexual touching to forcible rape. (There are not yet enough cases to provide more detailed, aggregated numbers while protecting student privacy, Drell said.)

Of the 36 cases, eight have gone to a formal hearing, by which in the new process three trained panelists meet with the involved students and witnesses, hear evidence and decide based on a preponderance of the evidence standard — if it's more likely than not that the incident occurred — if the accused student is responsible.

For a finding of responsibility, the pilot process requires the panel unanimously agree that the student violated university policy.

This has happened in four cases so far, according to the university. In the other four cases, the panel did not find students responsible — on a 0-3 vote in three cases and a 1-2 vote (one for responsibility and two against) in the other. Stanford said it has not yet had a single panelist prevent a finding of responsibility.

Students who have been found responsible for sexual violence have received sanctions including two- to four-quarter suspensions and a delayed degree conferral.

Far more cases, 14, have ended in a non-hearing resolution, or a proposed set of remedies that both parties, accused and accuser, agreed. Opting for a non-hearing resolution means there is no formal hearing or finding of responsibility.

The non-hearing resolution cases ended in outcomes like a "permanent separation" from Stanford, which is "equivalent to expulsion," the report states; a one-year leave of absence from the university; a five-year ban; and no-contact directives.

Stanford has also addressed a significant number of complaints informally when students "did not want the university to conduct a full investigation," the report states. In addition to the 36 investigated reports, the university has responded to 29 complaints with "informal interventions" like counseling, group training, changing housing assignments and asking the accused students to stay away from the alleged victims.

The most common reason students gave for preferring these informal remedies, Stanford said, was that the alleged victim wanted to remain anonymous or requested to "address the sexual harassment through counseling in order to change behavior."

Since last February, the university has also received an additional 61 "unverified" reports of sexual violence, mostly from third parties, the report states.

Noting that nearly 75 percent of investigated cases have involved alcohol or drug consumption by one or both parties, Drell said Stanford is gathering data about the relationship between alcohol and drugs and unwanted sexual conduct. Stanford is also "working to understand through data" whether certain segments of undergraduate students may have higher numbers of perpetrators of sexual violence.

At Stanford, a smaller proportion of male student-athletes make up the accused than in the male student population as a whole, according to the report, and there is "no overrepresentation" of fraternity houses as the locations of reported sexual violence. The university is, however, starting to collect data to learn more about the potential connection between attending a fraternity party and a sexual assault happening later elsewhere on campus as well as data on student group membership for both victims and perpetrators.

Some students and faculty who work closely on sexual-violence reform at the campus lauded the report's transparency and neutral tone -- a "departure" from more defensive communications in the past, said Matt Baiza, a rising senior and co-founder of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention.

Rachel Samuels, outgoing chief of staff for Stanford's student government body, the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), said the report provided "transparent," "straightforward" information about sexual violence.

Several aspects of the report gave these students and others pause, however.

Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, a Title IX expert who has pushed for reform at the university in recent years, said that among student-victims she's worked with, there's a negative perception about the new hearing process — in particular, the unanimity requirement for responsibility and to secure a permanent no-contact directive. (The university will grant a temporary stay-away order when a student reports a Title IX violation, but the hearing is required for a longer duration.)

Students "elect to avoid going through a hearing process because they are afraid that they will not receive a unanimous finding if they do and will therefore lose any opportunity to have a no-contact directive or other remedies," she said.

Baiza said he has friends who have chosen the non-hearing resolution over a formal hearing for this reason.

"There may still be a perverse incentive that an individual would rather get at least a no-contact order or a smaller accommodation even though that means the perpetrator is going to be still on campus," he said.

He urged Stanford to continuing gathering data to better understand what motivates or discourages students from reporting sexual violence and their experiences with university processes.

The non-hearing resolution in and of itself isn't negative and could be the best option in some cases, Dauber said, but shouldn't be allowed for more severe complaints that involve allegations of sexual assault, dating violence, stalking or repeat offenders.

Dauber has criticized the new unanimity requirement as stacking the deck against victims and as "inconsistent with Title IX's requirement of an equitable hearing process," she wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Stanford Daily. There is "zero legal basis," she wrote, "for requiring a victim to receive three votes rather than a simple majority of two out of three votes."

The unanimity requirement appears to be rare among Stanford's peer universities, Dauber said -- only Duke University has the same policy.

Samuels said the ASSU is among the student groups on campus pushing the administration to revise its uniquely narrow definition of sexual assault -- defined in policy as penetration through force, violence, duress or menace while a victim is incapacitated. The ASSU has also recommended the university require the three hearing panelists to reach their decisions on findings independently rather than as a group to prevent one member from swaying the others, Samuels said. (In Stanford's previous adjudication process, there were five panelists.)

Elected student officials have also proposed the panelists receive implicit bias training, Samuels said.

Dauber also disputes the report's claim that Stanford did not retaliate against an attorney who publicly criticized the university's adjudication process. Stanford dismissed Crystal Riggins of San Jose-based firm Hoge Fenton earlier this year after she was quoted in a New York Times story examining the process through the lens of a rape allegedly committed by a football player.

Drell asked an existing Title IX advisory committee of faculty and students to investigate the decision to cut ties with Riggins. The committee reported that "the decision 'was made in good faith and was not motivated, in whole or in part, by comments [the attorney] made to reporters criticizing Stanford's processes,' adding that 'the decision was made before [the attorney] had made any public statements about the program,'" Drell wrote.

The advisory committee is also continuing to evaluate the Title IX process, which will be in a pilot phase until the 2018-19 school year. A range of campus bodies, including the Board on Judicial Affairs, ASSU Undergraduate Senate, Graduate Student Council and Faculty Senate, must approve the pilot process for it to be officially adopted as university policy.

Samuels raised some concerns about the advisory committee's transparency. Elected student officials have struggled to secure meetings with its chair, she said. And while the committee has been taking online feedback for many months, it's unclear what the group is doing in response, she said.

Drell's progress report is a positive albeit small step down a much longer path to address sexual violence at Stanford, Samuels said.

"I think that if she continues to go down this path, continuing to be more transparent and welcoming of feedback -- especially from students who are frustrated because they or their friends have been through trauma that has been made so much worse by the school ... things will go in an OK direction, but it's not easy," she said.

The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify page to capture ongoing coverage of sexual-assault issues at Stanford University. View it here.

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