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Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Handling of Sexual Assault Cases at Stanford

Sexual assault on college campuses is a national problem. Stanford has worked to expand its sexual assault resources for students and strengthen its processes for responding to incidents -- and the University is committed to making further improvements. Provost Etchemendy has convened a faculty-student-staff task force to suggest ways of improving educational efforts around sexual assault and to provide advice on Stanford's disciplinary process.

Because many of the issues are complex, this page seeks to provide answers to some frequently asked questions about this important subject for the campus community.

What does Stanford policy say about sexual assault?

Sexual assault and other forms of sexual misconduct are unacceptable at Stanford. No student should have his or her opportunities at Stanford limited or constrained because of an act of sexual violence. The University has both a Policy on Sexual Misconduct and Sexual Abuse and a Title IX policy outlining Stanford's approach to these issues. In addition, incidents of sexual assault may be found to be violations of the Fundamental Standard, Stanford's overarching statement of expectations for student conduct.

Why does Stanford investigate sexual assault cases? Why aren't they left to the criminal justice system?

Stanford encourages all students who believe they have been sexually assaulted to report the incident to both the local police agency and to the University. Regardless of whether there is a criminal proceeding, Stanford is required by federal law (Title IX) to investigate and respond to these reports. The scope and nature of the Title IX investigation or response can vary and, in all instances, will be guided by confidentiality considerations, the details that are reported and the University’s obligation to the community to ensure a safe, hostile-free environment.

Title IX prohibits discrimination in educational institutions based on sex or gender, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. The requirement that universities investigate and respond to reports of sexual assault involving students has been made increasingly clear in recent years by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, most notably through a 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter and the issuance of additional guidance in April 2014.

An investigation by Stanford occurs whether an incident is the subject of a criminal investigation or not. The goal of Stanford's investigation is not to determine whether a crime has been committed, but whether University policy has been violated and, if so, what discipline is appropriate. A criminal investigation and a University investigation may proceed simultaneously, and a University investigation may occur even if a criminal investigation has terminated. In addition, the requirement of an investigation by the University applies regardless of whether an incident has occurred on campus or off campus, as students may experience the continuing effects of an off-campus incident while pursuing their studies back on campus.

Why is Stanford's disciplinary process for sexual assault called the Alternate Review Process? What does it involve?

The Alternate Review Process was created on a pilot basis in 2010, and approved for ongoing use in 2013, to provide sexual assault cases an "alternate" hearing process for disciplinary purposes than is given to other kinds of student misconduct cases. It is intended to recognize the special features of sexual assault cases and their differences from other kinds of student misconduct cases, such as academic cheating cases.

The process is not one that was imposed by the administration, but rather resulted from an extensive consultative process among students, faculty and staff. The process was created by the Board on Judicial Affairs and subsequently reviewed and approved by the ASSU Undergraduate Senate, the Graduate Student Council and the Academic Senate.

Under the Alternate Review Process, cases are adjudicated by panels consisting of three students and two members of Stanford faculty and/or staff. These reviewers are trained in Title IX, the definition of consent, the unique aspects of sexual violence cases, the appropriate standard of evidence, the due process rights of the parties involved, and other key issues. The reviewers hear the entire case, including the accounts of both parties, in order to decide whether an individual has violated University policy and recommend a sanction (which can be appealed to the Vice Provost for Student Affairs). In essence, the process involves a series of private interviews rather than a single, trial-like hearing, eliminating the need for the parties to be present together and providing an alternative format to traditional face-to-face cross-examination.

What standard of proof is used in Stanford's process?

In a disciplinary proceeding under the Alternate Review Process, the standard of proof – based on federal government guidance – is "preponderance of the evidence." This means the alleged conduct is more likely than not to have occurred, and it is distinct from the more stringent "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard that is used in the criminal justice system, where criminal penalties are at stake.

What protections does Stanford offer to students going through the process?

Stanford has a range of resources, including confidential counseling resources, to help students who are in crisis understand the options available to them and make informed decisions. Once a report is made, the University also offers interim accommodations to assure the safety and well being of an impacted student. These can include residential accommodations, academic accommodations, security, counseling and other measures which are implemented in such a way as to minimize the burden on the impacted party. These may be adjusted over the course of an investigation.

What does University policy say about the penalty for a student who is found responsible for committing a sexual assault?

Stanford policy does not currently prescribe a single penalty for violations of University policy. An individual found responsible for an incident of sexual assault can be subject to discipline up to and including expulsion. Reviewers who have heard all the information presented about a case must determine what they believe to be the appropriate discipline weighing many factors – including the specific nature of the incident as revealed through the hearing process, the need to protect the impacted party as long as that individual is enrolled at Stanford, and the need to provide for the ongoing safety of the broader campus community. The reviewers are the individuals who have all the facts presented in the case, and they will consider any mitigating factors in determining the degree of sanctions warranted. The sanctions recommended by the review panel can be appealed to the Vice Provost for Student Affairs for final decision.

Is Stanford considering making expulsion the presumptive sanction for cases of sexual assault with force?

Yes, such an approach is under discussion. Under such an approach, expulsion would not be automatic in every case, but it would be the presumptive sanction prior to consideration of any mitigating factors.

Why is the disciplinary process confidential? Why aren't the details of cases made public as they would be in a criminal case?

University policy and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) both contain privacy protections for students involved in these processes. Even if names were not disclosed, describing a case in detail could make one or more of the participants identifiable. However, though individual cases are confidential, all of Stanford's policies and procedures are fully described on the web and are available for any member of the public to review.

What improvements is Stanford looking to make in its handling of sexual assault cases?

In the last few years, Stanford has expanded education and prevention resources, developed a sexual assault policy specifically in the context of Title IX, developed a new disciplinary process tailored to sexual assault cases, and hired a dedicated Title IX Coordinator. But the University is always looking to improve what it does and will be working with students and others in the coming months to further strengthen its processes and programs.

All of the input being provided by members of the Stanford community, and best practices from elsewhere, will be considered, including further expanded education and prevention programs, additional resources for students coping with the aftermath of an incident, and potential changes to the disciplinary process and its presumptive sanction for those found responsible for sexual assault with force. Provost Etchemendy has convened a faculty-student-staff task force, co-chaired by Law School Dean Elizabeth Magill and ASSU President Elizabeth Woodson, to review these important issues and provide advice on them.


June 2014