Op-Ed: Standard of Proof

Opinion by and
April 18, 2011, 12:25 a.m.

On April 12, President Hennessy released an executive order to lower the standard of proof from “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” to “Preponderance of the Evidence” in cases on sexual assault and relationship abuse. The decision came on the heels of Vice President Biden’s stern call to U.S. universities to better account for campus sexual violence.

This decision comes as a great joy to me, considering how much of my term as ASSU Chair of Women’s Issues was spent lobbying both University administrators and the Standard of Proof Subcommittee of the review process to lower the standard to “Preponderance of the Evidence.” Much of our discourse centered on civil rights. Title IX (a federal provision aimed to protect female students from gender discrimination) states that a university’s judicial process should not have a standard higher than “Preponderance of the Evidence” when handling sexual assault and domestic violence cases. Stanford, by virtue of receiving considerable funding from Title IX, should have heeded to the regulations provided by Title IX.

We also brought up the issue of how our high standard differed from those used in domestic violence courts. In these cases, courts use a standard of “Preponderance of the Evidence,” or about a 51 percent chance that the assault or abuse occurred. And in these cases, people are often at risk of prison sentences. However, at Stanford, the most that can happen is expulsion from the University, not nearly the same punishment. As such, our former system of “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” was wholly inappropriate when considering how actual criminal courts prosecute sexual assault and relationship abuse.

Now, as an advocate of survivors, I am elated that this change has happened. By having such a stringent standard for sexual misconduct cases, survivors of sexual assault and relationship abuse were being deterred from pursuing the process, given the difficult standards they were required to meet. However, although this change will improve the University’s response to violence against women, it comes decades late in terms of adequately addressing University response to sexual violence. This point is made even more explicit, considering how campus sexual assault has become an epidemic and how the culture of silence, both among students and university administrators across the country, has been widely publicized.

Instead, many University institutions have centered many of their policies on the popular but mistaken myth that accusations of sexual assault or domestic abuse are lies on the part of women. While it may be the case that some accusations are unfounded, this occurs in less than 2 percent of overall cases. Instead, this myth perpetuates not only a negative view of women and their testimony but contributes to the hesitancy that many survivors feel in coming out with their experiences of abuse.

It is little surprise, then, that over 60 percent of sexual assaults are unreported. And it’s not hard to see why, considering how many women are re-victimized once they decide to come forward and seek justice with stereotypes and assumptions that call into question their morality, past sexual history and degree to which they may or may not have resisted.

Having a lower standard of proof will circumvent many of these issues. It will require of those deciding on a sexual assault case to be conscious of how contentious these cases can be, the history that has allowed for an unequal balance of power based on gender and how to better understand the fact that sexual violence rests more on consent and less on the traditional paradigm of struggle and physical evidence.

Lastly, attention must be directed to how the new standard of proof will function in conjunction with the standard of proof as set by the ASSU Constitution (which has “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” as its standard for both Honor Code and Fundamental Standard cases). As it currently stands, Judicial Affairs and the ASSU Constitution have differing standards, an issue that could bring liability to Judicial Affairs cases. I would strongly encourage the incoming ASSU Executive and ASSU Senate to make the lowering of the ASSU Constitution’s standard of proof to “Preponderance of the Evidence” a priority, to be effective as soon as possible.

While it is problematic that Stanford’s strict standard of proof for sexual assault cases lasted as long as it did, I celebrate the administration for realizing the harm that policies like “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” were catalyzing for survivors of sexual violence and abuse. And while the change is a cause for celebration, much work remains to be done. I encourage administrators and students alike to call for further reforms within Judicial Affairs, particularly policies like a standard sanction and increased sensitivity training for University staff. Most of all, I encourage students to become advocates against violence against women. Educate yourself and others and stand up to violence or gender discrimination. The changing of the standard of proof is a victory for anyone who believes in eradicating sexual violence from college campuses.

Viviana Arcia ’13

ASSU Chair of Women’s Issues


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