A high-profile news report published this week has returned the national spotlight to frustrations over how sexual assaults on college campuses, in the Bay Area and nationwide, are handled by academic institutions.
The New York Times' new investigation released Thursday exposes a sexual assault charge on the campus of Stanford University and how multiple administrative panels left the accuser feeling abandoned.
National statistics show that is not an anomaly. More than one-in-five undergraduate women report being sexually assaulted during college, according to a study released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016. The majority of rape and sexual assault survivors said they were victimized by someone they knew. But the majority of those rapes or assaults go unreported. Only 7 percent of women who said they were raped reported the incident to a school official, according to the study.
Students are more likely to report sexual violence to their universities or colleges than to the police. But that's left institutions to strike a delicate balance between the legal right of the victim to have a safe campus, while maintaining a fair investigation for the accused.
In the New York Times report, a Stanford sophomore, who is now 22, revealed she went to the room of a football player during a frat party one night. She says he raped her. He says they had consensual sex.
Seeking to avoid the trauma of a police investigation, the accuser turned to the university’s in-house disciplinary board, one of many on college campuses that adjudicate sexual assault cases, and it would decide whom to believe. If the panel had found that sexual assault had taken place, the man could have been expelled.
Both times, three of the five panelists — drawn from a pool of administrators, faculty members and students — concluded that the man, who remained on the football team throughout the case and is on the roster for a bowl game Friday, committed sexual assault.
At many schools, this simple majority vote would have been enough to find the accused responsible. But Stanford had set an uncommonly high bar, requiring at least a 4-1 decision.
This year, amid growing dissent over how it handles these kinds of cases, Stanford changed its procedure in a way that victims' rights advocates say favors the accused. It now requires a unanimous verdict from a three-member board.
That's unusual, Michele Dauber, a Stanford law professor and sexual assault survivor advocate, told KQED.
"This makes Stanford a significant outlier among its peer schools", she said. "Only one other school has a three-person unanimous panel and that's Duke. The most commonly used form of the decision is a three-person panel and it's decided by a simple majority."
Stanford officials insisted that the unanimous panel is fair, in an interview with the Mercury News.
“What Stanford supports overall is due process and we want to have a process that is fair and equitable for both the accuser and the accused,” Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said Thursday. She pointed out that under the review process, the panel uses a “preponderance of evidence” standard to decide a case, a lower legal bar than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is applied under U.S. law in criminal cases. So if lower threshold tends to favor the accuser, said Lapin, the unanimous vote essentially serves as a counterbalance.
“Our process,” said Lapin, “is designed so that it provides due process for both parties.” She said of 16 cases reported so far this year, six went to the three-member panel, with three of the accused found to be responsible while the other three were not.
But Dauber told KQED that she finds the requirement for a unanimous verdict "inherently unfair." Under this system, the accused needs only one vote in their favor to win the "case." Whereas, the accuser needs all three panelists to agree to prevail.
In the alleged assault investigated by the New York Times, although the majority of the panelists agreed that an assault had taken place, no action was taken. The panelists first met in June 2015.
The victim left Stanford and is deciding whether to return. The accused student remains enrolled at the university and is expected to be a member of the football team in the bowl game against North Carolina today.
Ongoing Title IX Investigations Into Stanford
The United States Education Department interprets Title IX, a 1972 federal law mandating access to higher education regardless of gender, as requiring universities to investigate alleged sexual assaults. Universities have broad latitude to decide how they will conduct such investigations and rulings, though.
Recently, under the Obama administration, the department has become more active in investigating and raising awareness about campus sexual assault. In 2011, the department's Office of Civil Rights urged administrators to use a preponderance of evidence, the legal standard in civil cases. This summer, the Office of Civil Rights was investigating Stanford for the handling of five cases.
While the government lists five cases, they reflect four different incidents. In one of the matters, both the complaining student and the responding student filed concerns with OCR, an OCR communications officer said.
To put the number of cases in context: The federal list includes 243 sexual violence cases at 192 postsecondary institutions as of June 1. Apart from Stanford, two other schools had four cases: Kansas State University and Saint Mary’s College of Maryland. Six other schools had three cases.
Stanford reported 39 sexual assaults on and around campus in 2015, compared to 21 in 2010, according to data reported to the federal government. However, it is possible more victims are coming forward more often, the Times notes.
University panels have adjudicated 22 sexual assault cases, finding in 13 that the accuser acted improperly since 2010. Only one student has been expelled for sexual assault, the Times reports.
Stanford's most high-profile sexual assault was tried off campus. On Jan. 17, 2015, Brock Turner, a star swimmer at Stanford, sexually assaulted an unconscious woman on campus. She called the police and pressed charges. Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky was widely criticized for imposing a six-month jail sentence rather than the six-year prison term that prosecutors had sought. Persky's short sentence -- along with his statement that "a prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner]. I think he will not be a danger to others," and the victim's powerful letter to her attacker -- fueled a nationwide debate on how sexual assaults are handled.