By Kate Selig
This story contains references to sexual misconduct and assault that may be troubling to some readers. The names of the students have been changed out of respect for the students’ privacy. The responding student did not reply to multiple requests for comment, including an email containing all the allegations made against him.
Three students reported allegations of misconduct and assault against the same student to the Title IX Office in early 2020. And after the office shut down the three students’ cases, the case was sent to the admissions office, where Dean of Admissions Richard Shaw concluded — based on a report from Title IX investigators — that the responding student had not violated the Fundamental Standard.
The ultimate rejection and winding nature of the cases’ trajectory exemplify difficulties students face in pursuing sexual violence cases, according to students and faculty. Advocates said that the students’ experience also illustrates the difficulty of pursuing cases that take place before matriculation, as some of the alleged conduct took place prior to enrollment.
Cases of sexual misconduct that involve students who have been admitted to but have not yet enrolled at Stanford are handled by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. Such cases are not subject to University policy or Title IX’s jurisdiction and are instead based on the requirement that applicants and prospective students act in accord with the Fundamental Stanford under a preponderance of evidence standard, according to University spokesperson Dee Mostofi.
Mostofi wrote that the staff of the Title IX Office, who addressed the students’ initial reports and aided Shaw’s investigation, care deeply about these issues and continue to support a safe and respectful environment.
“The Title IX Office provides support for students to ensure a fair, timely and effective Title IX process for conduct that falls within its jurisdiction,” Mostofi wrote. “This fair and impartial process is essential for conflicting perspectives, which can lead to difficult outcomes for some parties.”
An external philanthropic organization that some of the reporting parties and the responding student were involved in conducted a separate investigation into the issue and found that allegations against the responding student could not be sustained, according to Mostofi, although the organization declined to comment on how the determination was reached and what standard was used.
Clara first met the responding student at a summer program unaffiliated with Stanford before their senior year of high school. “We referred to each other as family, because that was what the program was premised on,” Clara said. But during a walk back to the responding student’s dorm, Clara said he touched her inappropriately, claiming he was drunk and high, only walking those claims back after Clara asked him to stop.
Symere met the responding student at the same summer program, crossing paths with him again after their acceptance to Stanford. In an off-campus location with 15 other people, Symere said she was tired, and lay down on one of the room’s beds. She said the responding student offered to let her put her head in his lap: “We called each other family,” she said. “I thought it was out of goodwill.”
According to Title IX documentation Symere provided to The Daily, Symere told the office the responding student soon started touching her hair and arms. She asked the responding student to stop, and pulled her hands away from him, though he continued. Later that night, she said, the two fell asleep on the same bed.
She told the office she awoke to the responding student thrusting his erect penis against her lower back, later pinning her right arm so that she couldn’t move, while inappropriately touching her. Throughout, he told her he had never had sex before. Symere said she said “No, stop,” multiple times, while tucking in her clothing and attempting to pull away. Symere said the responding student didn’t stop, continuing to inappropriately grope her while asking for sex.
Symere eventually managed to grab her friend’s phone, setting an alarm to wake everyone up. “I didn’t want to cause a scene, but I wanted him to stop,” she told The Daily. When the alarm went off, she said the people in the room woke up, allowing her to leave.
Njuzi first met the responding during a Stanford program the summer before matriculation, where Clara and Symere warned her separately to stay away from him. Once the school year started, the two were placed in the same dorm. She said the responding student asked her to watch a movie with him, as the two were in a tight-knit friend group.
At lunch, she said the responding student had denounced a rumored assault at a party. “He said, ‘Oh my god, that’s so disgusting,’” Njuzi said. “I thought he seems like he hates that, he would never do that.”
But as the two watched the movie, Njuzi said the responding student started to bombard her with compliments, asking if she was in a relationship and saying that he had never had his first kiss. She said he pressured her for a kiss for 20 minutes, while she told him that she did not want to hurt their friend group, politely trying to tell him no.
Eventually she gave in: “I started getting scared,” she said. “I realized I didn’t really know who he really was, and there wasn’t anyone in our dorm.” The situation escalated from a kiss without consent, Njuzi said, with the responding student groping her body, “dry humping” her and moaning, while she laid there unmoving.
Afterward, she went to the library.
“I stared at the wall for a couple of hours,” she said. “I convinced myself mentally that I liked him, and he wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t care about me.” The two then were “a thing” for two weeks before she broke the relationship off.
Title IX contacted Clara in November of her freshman year, setting up a meeting where she said she was told the Title IX Office, based on a report from a community member, had reason to believe that she was a harmful influence on the community for spreading rumors about the responding student. Clara said she told the office that she had only told others about her own experiences when she felt intervention was necessary, like when the responding student started to prey on other women.
Mostofi declined to confirm the details of the meeting.
Clara, Symere and Njuzi, who had gotten in contact with each other through their shared experiences with the responding student, then decided to open preliminary inquiries into their cases with Title IX after consulting with each other.
Clara’s case was “tossed out pretty fast,” she said. Title IX emailed her to write that as her case had taken place prior to her and the responding student’s enrollment, it was outside of Title IX’s jurisdiction, according to documentation provided to The Daily. She decided not to pursue the case further, as she thought that serving as a witness to Symere and Njuzi’s cases would lead her to have a bigger impact.
At the time of the investigation, the scope of Title IX included alleged wrongdoing that impacted someone affiliated with the institution, regardless of the status of the respondent or geographic location. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s August regulations have since limited the jurisdiction of Title IX only to activity that takes place at a school or at a school-related event.
Symere said that as her experience with the student happened before matriculation, Title IX said the University was not responsible for the student’s actions.
“I found that insulting,” she said. “They questioned me at least five, maybe seven times, about every little detail. None of them did anything.”
Mostofi wrote that during the investigative process, it is not uncommon for the Title IX Office to speak to students several times with the intent of ascertaining the facts of a case, which are then presented to the Title IX coordinator. The Title IX coordinator has final authority over whether a claim, if true, is a violation of Stanford’s Title IX policy, according to Mostofi.
And after a protracted investigation — Njuzi said she would go to the Title IX Office every couple of days to ask for a decision — the office told her in her outcome letter, which was provided to The Daily, that her claims, even if taken as true, did not rise to the level of a Title IX violation.
Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include harassment, sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, stalking and nonforcible sexual violations. Stanford’s Title IX procedure defines sexual assault as any sexual act directed against a complaintant without affirmative consent.
The existence of a dating relationship between the persons involved, or the fact of past sexual relations between them, should never by itself be assumed to be an indicator of affirmative consent, according to the Title IX procedure.
Mostofi declined to comment on why the claims did not rise to the level of a Title IX violation.
Out of frustration, the three booked office hours slots with President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, who referred them to Senior Associate Vice Provost for Institutional Equity & Access Lauren Schoenthaler.
The three said Schoenthaler was not of much help, at points making harmful comparisons. Njuzi said when she asked Schoenthaler why her claims did not rise to the level of a Title IX violation, Schoenthaler compared the situation to a “creepy” uncle and a child.
“‘You might feel a little uncomfortable if he gives you a hug,’” Njuzi said Schoenthaler said. “‘But that’s just how family works.’”
Symere said Schoenthaler compared Symere’s steps of reporting to “a kindergarten tattle-teller who proceeded to inform college counselors of [Schoenthaler’s] son cheating on a test years ago.”
Schoenthaler wrote in a statement to The Daily that the tone and content of what was attributed to her was inaccurate and mischaracterized the conversation. She wrote that she did not nor would have suggested that it is alright to give someone a hug without affirmative consent, and said she would never equate an unwanted hug with sexual assault. “I addressed these students with dignity and respect,” she wrote.
Schoenthaler did note that “I do often discuss that some conduct is wrong but does not rise to the level of a policy violation, and I state that conduct is on a continuum giving examples of conduct on the continuum.”
Following continued pressure from the students, Interim Title IX Coordinator Cathy Glaze alerted Symere in late April that the Office of Undergraduate Admissions would be stepping in on the case, with the Title IX Office aiding in conducting an independent review to determine if the responding student’s conduct violated Stanford’s Fundamental Standard, according to emails provided to The Daily.
According to Mostofi, final outcomes of an investigation by the admissions office could include a suspension or the revocation of an admissions offer. The University rescinded an incoming freshman football recruit’s admission in April after investigating his involvement as a witness to alleged sexual assault in 2018.
There is no one way schools address allegations of sufficient wrongdoing outside of Title IX’s scope, with methods depending on how the school is organized and the mission of different departments, according to Christine Helwick ’68, who has filled in for attorneys on leave in Title IX investigations at Stanford and also served as general counsel for the California State University system.
Given difficulties communicating with Glaze during the initial Title IX inquiry, Symere requested Glaze step down from the case, leaving Dean Shaw as the sole decision maker. The same Title IX investigators who turned down Symere’s case were assigned to investigating the potential Fundamental Standard violation.
“These are the same people who I talked to and said my case has no validity,” Symere said. “There was bias coming in.”
Mostofi wrote that investigators do not make determinations about which cases can or cannot proceed.
The students — Symere leading the case, with Njuzi and Clara serving as witnesses — said the Title IX investigators were difficult to work with throughout the process. They insisted that she was under the influence at the time of the incident, Symere said. Njuzi said they zeroed in on how she hadn’t directly said no.
“Asking a victim multiple times, ‘Did you say no?’ defeats the purpose of establishing what the correct kind of consent is in the first place,” Clara said. “If you don’t say yes, or if a person is trying to back out, that’s not consent.”
Mostofi wrote that investigators ask all parties about verbal and nonverbal signs of consent to get a complete understanding of what happened. “The Title IX Office continues to use affirmative consent as the basis for whether there was a sexual assault or attempted acts of sexual assault,” Mostofi wrote.
Symere also provided screenshots of the responding student texting about women on campus, at one point writing “I’d take a bite outta that,” adding a peach emoji, which is often used to refer to buttocks.
In Symere’s outcome letter in August, which was provided to The Daily, Glaze wrote that the investigators determined that “it is more likely than not that there was some sexual activity” at the off-campus location, “and that you found it upsetting and violating.” But, the investigators also concluded that “you may not have accurately perceived the extent to which you were signaling your non-consent to the Respondent. Thus, [the investigators] were not able to find that the Respondent had violated the Fundamental Standard.”
Glaze wrote that Shaw accepted the investigators’ findings, and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions would sustain the respondent’s admission and enrollment. Glaze added that the incident occurred before the respondent had received Stanford training on affirmative consent and positive sexuality.
“I gave nothing,” Symere said. “So I don’t know how or why I’m measuring my non-consent. If there’s not any consent, you shouldn’t be proceeding with anything.”
“I don’t understand how something sexual can occur that makes you feel violated and disrespected and not violate the Fundamental Standard — which is literally about treating others with respect,” she added.
The Fundamental Standard states “Students at Stanford are expected to show both within and without the University such respect for order, morality, personal honor and the rights of others as is demanded of good citizens. Failure to do this will be sufficient cause for removal from the University.”
Mostofi declined to comment on Symere’s concerns about Shaw’s decision.
Contemporaneously with Stanford’s investigation, an external philanthropic organization that two of the students were involved with also investigated the matter and independently determined that neither of the allegations could be sustained, according to Mostofi. The philanthropic organization declined to disclose information to The Daily about the investigation, including whether it occurred.
The foundation also declined to comment on how the determination was reached and what standards were used. According to two of the students, the foundation declined to answer the student’s questions about the ruling or allow her to speak about the situation with the foundation’s director.
And the students said Stanford’s decision could have dangerous consequences for other students on campus: “Life continues beyond Stanford,” Symere said. “With this decision, Stanford is reinforcing his view that what he’s doing is okay.”
In the 2018-19 academic year, the Title IX Office received 279 reports of sexual harassment, sexual violence and gender discrimination, with 20 reports of nonconsensual intercourse and 20 reports of nonconsensual touching, according to the 2018-19 Title IX/Sexual Harassment Annual Report released by the University. Most cases had a “non-investigation outcome,” an umbrella term for matters that are concluded without a formal investigation.
Of the non-consensual intercourse allegations, there were just four formal completed investigations, with two findings of a policy violation. For the non-consensual touching allegations, there were eight completed investigations, with four findings of a policy violation.
Only a small percentage of those who say they’ve experienced sexual violence report the incident to the Title IX Office.
14.2% of respondents to a survey organized by the Association of American Universities reported experienced at least one instance of nonconsensual sexual contact at Stanford, with 31.1% of undergraduate women reporting an instance.
Advocates said difficulties students face in pursuing sexual violence cases stem from both the people and the procedures involved.
Maia Brockbank ’21, who co-directs sexual violence prevention and Title IX for the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), said college campuses, including Stanford, can be breeding grounds for repeat offenders. She added that the University has an incentive to not take responsibility for such cases when possible. “Still,” she said, “other private university administrators are not making policies that are this harmful and damage survivors.”
Activist and law professor Michele Dauber, who declined to comment on a specific scenario, said the University does not have a written policy governing reporting incidents before matriculation. She said a lack of such a policy was especially dangerous, given that some students who matriculate at Stanford have interacted with other matriculated Stanford students whether at summer programs or by attending the same high school.
Mostofi declined to comment on whether the University has a written policy governing such reports.
All advocates interviewed said they had concerns about Shaw’s qualifications to adjudicate such cases. Brockbank said adjudicating cases of sexual violence is not Shaw’s job.
“It feels like it’s part of a pattern of the Title IX Office doing everything they can to reduce their caseload and punt it to other people,” Brockbank said.
Shaw did not respond to request for comment directly, and Mostofi, responding on behalf of the University, declined to comment on Shaw’s qualifications.
Some advocates also said that Glaze and Schoenthaler have been hard to work with and, at times, dismissive of student concerns. Dauber said her experience working with those involved in crafting and executing Title IX policies is entirely consistent with that of students on campus.
Dauber said that the lack of trust in the Title IX Office has harmful consequences for students considering reporting incidents and that now is the time for the University to take dramatic steps in order to create trust, including by making procedural and personnel changes.
“This is a hair-on-fire emergency,” she said. “If you have offices and procedures that students don’t trust, no one will report, and that makes a dangerous campus.”
Brockbank and Julia Paris ’21, who also co-directs sexual violence prevention and Title IX for the ASSU, commended the three students for their efforts to obtain justice through the University’s Title IX system, adding that they worry for students who don’t have the ability or willingness to go through the system.
“How many others are out there who don’t want to go through this obstacle course?” Brockbank asked.
Contact Kate Selig at kselig ‘at’ stanford.edu.