Stanford lowers standard of proof for sexual assault

By and
April 12, 2011, 3:04 a.m.
Stanford lowers standard of proof for sexual assault
(Stanford Daily File Graphic)

Stanford will lower its standard of proof for sexual-assault cases and open the appeals process to alleged victims in response to guidelines released to universities last week by the Obama administration.

The swift development comes amid a longer-term review of Stanford’s judicial-affairs process and a one-year pilot program specifically focused on improving the University’s handling of sexual-assault cases. It brings Stanford into line with the vast majority of universities that use the lower standard for sexual assault cases, an issue on which Stanford has been an outlier for years, administrators said Monday.

The changes are at the direction of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which is stepping up its implementation of Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sex discrimination at schools that receive federal money.

“We have to do better, and we have to do better now,” Vice President Joe Biden said last Monday, speaking at the University of New Hampshire about sexual-violence prevention and the new guidelines.

The Office for Civil Rights said in sexual-violence cases, preponderance of evidence is the “appropriate” standard of proof and that if schools provide appeals processes, they must do so for both parties. Those guidelines differ from Stanford’s former rules, which required alleged victims to prove their cases beyond reasonable doubt and which only provided an appeals process for “responding” students — those accused of sexual misconduct.

Although both parties may now appeal, the grounds for doing so will remain the same, said Assistant Dean of Student Life Jamie Pontius-Hogan.

Stanford President John Hennessy approved the changes to Stanford’s process, effective immediately, after universities received the new federal guidelines on April 4.

Governing the process for sexual-violence cases here is the Alternate Review Process, a one-year pilot program set to end in December. In addition to sexual assault, the process — and the new federal guidelines — cover sexual harassment, dating violence and stalking. The Board on Judicial Affairs and community members developed the pilot program in hopes it would resolve sexual-violence cases more quickly and privately.

The federal directive means that no matter the fate of the pilot program — whether the University keeps, changes or does away with it — the lower standard of proof and new appeals process will remain. Stanford must now design its sexual-violence process around the mandates, said Dean of Student Life Christine Griffith.

“I feel like we have been given a charge to say, ‘We really need to figure that out before the end of December,’” Griffith said.

The changes will also remain in place regardless of the conclusions of Stanford’s “internal review panel.” Launched earlier this school year, it is taking the first major look at Judicial Affairs since the Student Judicial Charter of 1997.

The standard of proof has been a specific area of focus for the internal reviewers, who are set to issue a report by the end of the school year. Reviewers could count on one hand the number of other universities they found using the high “beyond reasonable doubt” standard, which Stanford had had in place since before 1997, Griffith said.

The Office for Civil Rights’ efforts come as the office investigates allegations by 16 Yale students who say their university is violating Title IX and tolerating a “hostile sexual environment.”

Nationwide, almost 20 percent of female college students and 6 percent of male college students will be victims of attempted or actual sexual assault, according to the Department of Education.

At Stanford from 2007 to 2009, an average of about 11 “forcible sexual offenses” occurred each year, according to police.

ASSU President Angelina Cardona ’11 praised the changes after Boardman announced them Monday.

“Lowering of the standard of proof is absolutely crucial to the women’s community,” Cardona said.

Survivors of sexual assault must not be deterred from the judicial system because of too high a standard, she added.

Addressing women’s issues was an early focus of Cardona’s term; she and former Vice President Kelsei Wharton ’12 met with Hennessy in October to discuss a lower standard of proof, she said, and she led a number of student groups in urging the Judicial Affairs review panel to consider the change. Michael Cruz ’12 was elected to ASSU president on Saturday on a platform that included working to lower the standard.

But ASSU efforts were locked in the longer-term review process until the federal government handed down its guidelines last week.

Widespread student opinion on the issue has yet to be tested.

“I will say I know there are varying viewpoints on this, but I think it is at the end of the day a big advancement for the women’s community and for Stanford University,” Cardona said.

“For people who might be concerned about the change in the burden, the standard of proof, then [it is] probably an opportunity for people to be saying to themselves, ‘I need to be really educated about these issues because I don’t want to find myself in this circumstance,’” Griffith said.


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