Stanford accused of once again mishandling sexual assault in lawsuit
A searing lawsuit alleges that officials at Stanford University, an elite school plagued by criticism over its handling of sexual assault on campus, enabled a known sexual predator to assault and abuse female undergraduate students over the course of more than three years by repeatedly failing to heed his victims’ concerns.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court Monday, details a pattern of dating violence, sexual and physical assault, emotional abuse, and harassment experienced by three students at the hands of an anonymous assailant, referred to as “Mr. X.”
Stanford made international headlines earlier this year after Brock Turner, an aspiring Olympic swimmer and student at the Ivy League school, went to trial for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster in 2015. His sentence, widely considered unjustly lenient, became a catalyst for broader conversations about campus rape and the role that privilege plays in the criminal justice system.
Before Turner’s conviction, however, data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights indicated that Stanford topped the list of U.S. universities with the most cases of sexual violence open for review. Students, or groups on behalf of students, file complaints directly with the Office of Civil Rights if they feel their universities mishandled their concerns or discriminated against them. The review process enforces Title IX, a federal provision that bans educational institutions that discriminate on the basis of gender from receiving federal money. As of June, Stanford had five cases open.
Even earlier in 2014, students staged large-scale protests on campus after a female undergraduate’s email about the university’s handling of her rape went viral.
The complaint, filed by Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, and two law firms on behalf of “Jane Doe,” provides details that may shed light on how Stanford handles sexual assault allegations.
The first account detailed in the suit begins with “Ms. A.”
Ms. A says that in February 2011, she was embroiled in an abusive relationship with Mr. X. The lawsuit alleges that after Ms. A tried to end things via text, Mr. X came to her dorm room.
“Mr. X then pushed Ms. A onto her bed and began strangling her nearly to the point of unconsciousness, preventing her from screaming, breathing, or moving. Mr. X whispered into her ear, ‘No one will notice you when you die,’ before raping her,” the suit alleges.
After that encounter, Ms. A says she sought help. But rather than taking concrete steps to protect her and other students from further danger, the lawsuit alleges Stanford offered toothless solutions that it failed to enforce.
A campus counselor, the lawsuit alleges, took a victim-blaming approach by suggesting Ms. A invited the sexual contact. She says her academic advisor also suggested she practice self-care in the wake of the attack, and other Stanford officials explained why pursuing criminal action against Mr. X would be difficult. Instead, they persuaded Ms. A the right approach would be to seek a “mutual no-contact” directive, according to the lawsuit.
In January 2012, Ms. A says, a residence dean reported meeting with Mr. X and said he didn’t deny her rape allegations. The dean then raised the issue with other residence deans and reported being confident that Mr. X had been “chastened” since the attack and “was likely to rehabilitate and not harm others,” according to the suit.
In March 2014, Sallie Kim, Stanford’s interim Title IX coordinator — now a federal judge — said that she or another Stanford investigator would look into the case after speaking with Ms. A, according to the suit. The lawsuit alleges, however, that Stanford never investigated Mr. X’s conduct.
Ms. A allegedly wasn’t the only student to have violent encounters with Mr. X.
In 2014, two other accusers, according to the lawsuit, Jane Doe and Ms. B, both undergraduate students at the time, reported their own violent sexual encounters with Mr. X. Stanford officials, after learning of the students’ allegations against Mr. X, said in June that year they would review the reports together as part of a wider investigation into a pattern of sexual misconduct by Mr. X.
Despite the pending investigation, the university allowed Mr. X to finish the semester and walk at graduation in 2014, according to the lawsuit. Stanford released the result of its investigation on June 11, 2014, which found Mr. X responsible for sexual misconduct, imposed a campus ban on him for 10 years, and issued further no-contact directives.
Lisa Lapin, vp of communications for Stanford University, said via email that whether or not a student under investigation graduated “would depend on the specific case and the findings and recommendations of the adjudication panel that hears the case.”
Jane Doe, on the other hand, says she fell behind in her classes in the wake of the assault. On the same day that Stanford issued its letter containing the findings of its investigation, Jane Doe says she received another letter placing her on academic probation. She has since taken a leave of absence.
Ms. A and Ms. B also struggled with their studies, and Ms. B took a leave of absence after she was assaulted, according to the suit. Ms. A completed her undergraduate studies but took a leave of absence from her graduate program at Stanford in 2015, which she blames on Stanford’s failure to address allegations against her assailant.
The suit seeks damages and a jury trial on grounds that Stanford violated Title IX by subjecting Jane Doe “to a continuing hostile environment on the Stanford campus” for which she suffered both economic and emotional distress.
Lapin released a statement expressing Stanford’s attention to the suit:
“We have great sympathy for this student and any student who may have experienced sexual assault. Stanford has tremendous compassion for sexual assault victims and we have a confidential support team to support survivors of sexual assault and relationship violence. This should not happen at Stanford or anywhere else. Sexual assault and sexual misconduct are abhorrent and antithetical to the values of our campus — we take these matters very seriously and have zero tolerance for such violence.”