Stanford drops sexual assault lawyer who criticized Title IX process

Feb. 10, 2017, 1:40 a.m.

Stanford has dropped a lawyer previously on retainer for students navigating the University’s sexual assault adjudication process after the attorney spoke critically about the process to The New York Times. The move, first reported in another Times article, has reignited controversy over the University’s Title IX policies.

Crystal Riggins was one of six lawyers that Stanford pays to counsel students as part of a pilot program giving up to nine hours of free legal assistance to both the accuser and accused in University-mediated sexual assault cases. In December, The New York Times quoted Riggins in an article scrutinizing Stanford’s new review process for Title IX complaints, which was launched last February. Stanford requires a unanimous verdict from a three-person panel to establish guilt — a higher bar than is employed at most of its peer institutions.

“It is frustrating because universities should be getting this right, and they are not, and the idea that they can keep pushing this under the rug doesn’t make the campus any safer, as we keep seeing as these incidents come to light,” Riggins told The Times. “The process is complex and takes a long time. It is very difficult to get a 3-0 decision from a panel, and these young women are terrified and traumatized and just want it to be done.”

A month later, on Jan. 31, Stanford informed Riggins that the University would remove her from its panel of sexual assault attorneys the following day due to her comments.

According to documents obtained by The Times, Lauren Schoenthaler, senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access, told Riggins her words showed “lack of faith in Stanford’s Title IX Process.”

“Given your stated lack of confidence, it does not make sense for the university to continue to refer our students to you,” Schoenthaler said, calling Riggins’ view “disappointing.”

While Riggins acknowledged that her opinion in the December Times article was “critical,” she told The Daily that she did not view it as expressing “a lack of confidence in the process or Stanford.”

“I think that all universities can and should do better with these issues, and I stand by my comment as it reflects my experience,” she said.

She outlined ways to improve Stanford’s adjudication process in a memo sent Wednesday to the University’s sexual assault process advisory committee. Riggins said many of her suggestions were “super basic,” ranging from creating a chart of deadlines to resolving scheduling issues that affect students’ ability to prepare for class. As for the unanimous panel rule that The Times highlighted, Riggins declined to weigh in beyond explaining her personal experience.

“I don’t really participate in those debates because I’m an advocate for my clients,” she said. “There are other people who are out there working on the process and procedures. My focus is specifically for complaining students. Knowing that they have to get three votes — it can be a challenge.”

While Riggins lauded Stanford’s effort to give students access to lawyers’ advice, she is “disappointed” she will no longer be a University-sponsored resource. She will continue advising the two Stanford students she is currently working with through the University’s panel, and she remains available to students who hire her independently.

After news of Riggins’ departure broke Thursday, some students and faculty denounced Stanford’s treatment of the lawyer as hindering open discussion of a hotly debated Title IX process.

“Retaliation against survivors, advocates, and lawyers has no place on this campus,” wrote Stanford ASAP, a student group advocating sexual assault prevention, in a Facebook post. “If no one can criticize Stanford Title IX policies in hopes of improving them, then how can we move forward in addressing sexual assault on our campus?”

But University spokesperson Lisa Lapin called Riggins’ removal from her Stanford advisory role “common sense.”

“She expressed that she had no confidence in the process and no confidence in obtaining a good outcome for her clients,” Lapin wrote in an email to The Daily, adding that Stanford “lost confidence in her to represent our students.”

Lapin also took issue with The Times’ coverage of Stanford’s decision to cut Riggins. Thursday’s issue of the Stanford News Digest, a daily email newsletter compiling Stanford-related articles, criticized the Times piece as “incomplete and inaccurate.”

Lapin contested Riggins’ statement, quoted in The Times, that Riggins is the only lawyer on Stanford’s panel who specializes in representing accusing students; Riggins exclusively represented complainants, but Lapin said others have worked with Stanford complainants longer than she has. In response to criticism that the University’s unanimous panel standard makes findings of responsibility too hard, Lapin said that 15 out of 18 cases resolved under Stanford’s year-old Title IX process have resulted in outcomes “supportive of the complainant.”

To Stanford, “supportive of the complainant” means hearings with a guilty finding or “non-hearing resolutions” in which all students involved accept a proposal by the Title IX coordinator. Others are more skeptical of the Title IX panel’s outcomes. Michele Dauber, Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law and one of Stanford’s strongest critics on sexual assault, has argued that victims may accept informal resolutions with “frustration and resignation rather than satisfaction” due to low chances of more serious sanctions through a complex hearing process.

According to Lapin, three of six hearing panels have found the accused responsible. Panel votes in the remaining three hearings were 0-3, 0-3, and 1-2.

Lapin also said that Riggins’ Wednesday memo to the University indicated “misunderstanding” of her role as an advisor to, rather than a traditional representative of, students: Lapin said that actions Riggins described such as responding to submissions from accused students violate Stanford’s rules and would give Riggins’ clients “an unfair advantage.” Riggins, who did not wish to share the memo, denied the claims but declined to elaborate.

Expanding on her concerns with Stanford’s actions, Dauber worried about a “potential chilling effect” on lawyers’ ability to advocate for sexual assault victims at Stanford. After hearing that Riggins was let go, Dauber reached out unsuccessfully to Schoenthaler urging her to reconsider.

“I told her that students have told me that they like and trust [Riggins] as an attorney, and I felt very uncomfortable with the idea that Stanford would terminate a lawyer in response to advocacy for her clients’ interests,” Dauber wrote in an email to The Daily. She hopes Stanford’s president and provost will allow the attorney to return.

“It is disturbing that Stanford appears to be punishing someone for speaking her mind in a way that serves her clients’ interests,” she added. “A lawyer is required to maintain independence of judgment and her duty is to her client regardless of who is paying the bill.

For Dauber, Riggins’ removal was a sharp departure from comments that Catherine Glaze ’80 J.D. ’85, Stanford’s Title IX coordinator, made in an email to her last May. Dauber contacted Glaze at the time to note, among other concerns, a need to clarify lawyers’ independence to assure students those hired by the University had no conflict of interest. Dauber also wrote that Riggins was the only lawyer on Stanford’s panel she would feel comfortable referring sexual assault victims to.

“I can assure you… that the lawyers on the list are ardent advocates for their clients and not beholden to us,” Glaze wrote in an email obtained by The Daily. “I can also let you know that I’ve been very impressed by Crystal Riggins.”


Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’


This post has been updated to include Catherine Glaze’s comments in an email and to correct the date of The Times’ article on Crystal Riggins.

Hannah Knowles is senior staff writer from San Jose who served as Volume 253 Editor-in-Chief. Prior to that, she managed The Daily's news section.

Login or create an account