Expulsion for sexual assault is still seen as a radical policy that only a few universities have been willing to adopt.
Dartmouth College, which has had a poor reputation for its handling of sexual assault and has been investigated by the federal Office for Civil Rights for Title IX violations, implemented a new policy last June that made expulsion the mandatory punishment for students found responsible for most serious cases of sexual assault. It made a strong presumption of expulsion the standard in all other cases. In 2013, Duke University stiffened its guidelines, making expulsion the "preferred sanction" for serious sexual assault.
In its history, Stanford University has only expelled one student for sexual assault. It occurred in the 2006-07 school year in a case involving multiple victims. The university's disciplinary sanctions for sexual assault have mostly been suspensions, ranging in length from one to eight quarters. Additional consequences include delayed diplomas, education and community service hours.
Stanford law professor Michele Dauber, who helped draft new university procedures for adjudicating sexual violence, attributes the university's reluctance to hand down tougher sanctions to a long history of dealing with the most common student conduct violation cheating and much less precedent for dealing with sexual assault.
"At Stanford, like other universities, we don't expel students on first offense for cheating," she said last June. "If you plagiarize something because you're 18 ... and you show up to Stanford and you're under pressure and during a panic attack late at night you copy a piece of code we might suspend you for a quarter and give you a chance to reflect but we would not expel you. And that's right: We shouldn't expel you on a first charge.
"However, when you take that very sensible, very appropriate approach to cheating and then you drop rape into the middle of it, what you find is a real reluctance to expel, a cultural resistance to the idea of expulsion because the sanction of first resort that is cultural to Stanford and also cultural to Brown University and all these other schools too (is that) universities don't like to expel students for a first violation."
Ironically, when the university was drafting the Alternate Review Process (ARP) in the mid-2000s, a set of policies and procedures for dealing with allegations of sexual misconduct, expulsion as a default sanction for serious sexual violence was supported by many faculty and administrators. However, Dauber said, student opposition to the new ARP itself was so strong, she decided to not even float it as a proposal. ARP was piloted in 2010 and officially adopted in 2013.
"The leadership at ASSU (Associated Students of Stanford University) felt that ARP was taking away rights from accused students and that there would be a rash of false accusations and unfair expulsions," Dauber said. "So I made the decision, which I am confident was the right one at the time, to leave sanction reform for another day after ARP was firmly established. I think ... that the fear of change is no longer an issue, so that students are more willing to embrace sanction reform."
"ARP was not based on anyone's idea of a best practice," Dauber reiterated at a faculty panel event on sexual assault in October. "It was based on a set of political compromises that we struck with a variety of stakeholders around the university that were necessary in order to make any incremental improvements at all. It is not a model."
The tides have turned in the student body. Last fall, an ASSU task force on sexual assault submitted a series of recommendations to the administration, supporting expulsion as the default sanction for sexual violence, which is defined as sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking.
ASSU also recommended that the administration create sanctioning guidelines to "clarify and bolster appropriate actions," implement sanctions within 48 hours after they are determined, increase on-campus sexual-assault resources and centralize all offices that relate to the issues of sexual violence and gender equity, among other recommendations.
"Stanford has the opportunity and the responsibility to use the extraordinary resources we have at our disposal and our unique national stature to commit to being the most progressive institution in the country with regard to Stanford's policies on sexual assault and relationship abuse," the task force's proposal reads. "As on so many issues, Stanford at once has special abilities and responsibilities for national leadership. Where we go, other institutions will follow."
The first instance of discipline for sexual assault at Stanford came during the 2005-06 school year, according to data collected by Dauber. Out of nine cases since then, where sexual assault was found to have occurred, eight cases resulted in suspension usually for the time period the victim remained at school and only one in expulsion.
Between June 2011 and June 2014, there were no suspensions or expulsions and only one delayed degree conferral, according to Dauber. Stanford's sanctioning history is the precedent to which review panels are supposed to look.
"The modus operandi was 'protect the university and don't do much,'" Dauber said. "You can see that from the stats. That was true not just at Stanford, but everywhere."
Dauber, who has long been pushing for expulsion as the mandatory discipline for students found responsible for serious sexual misconduct, attributes the university's reluctance to impose tougher sanctions to a pervasive failure to recognize the full extent and damage of sexual assault.
"If the (Leland Stanford Junior University Marching) Band members got drunk, which they often do, and headed out onto the empty football field and committed an arson or something on the field, where ... they discharged a firearm but no one was hurt, I don't think we would have any trouble saying, 'Pack your stuff, get your toothbrush, call your mom, you're done. You fired a loaded gun on campus,'" Dauber said.
"Meanwhile, we have a student who rapes another student through force. Someone is injured. That's an act of extreme violence. ... And they are (considered) not a threat to the Stanford community? To me, that is an astounding finding, and it's one that hopefully in 30 years, we're going to look back and say, 'Thank god those bad old days are over.'"
Last June, a university task force composed of students, faculty, administrators and other university staff announced the week after Memorial Plaza had been packed with hundreds of students protesting in support of student Leah Francis, who was calling for expulsion of the male student found responsible for sexually assaulting her through force was asked to consider, among other things, the possibility of implementing mandatory expulsion. In a June 6, 2014, letter to students, Vice Provost of Student Affairs Greg Boardman wrote that the university intended to discuss the option of presumptive expulsion, "not meaning that it would be applied to every case automatically, but that it would be the starting point for the consideration of sanctions."
"Dartmouth got hammered by the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and they came out of it with a very forward-thinking set of policies that I think are on the right track," Dauber said. "Hopefully we're heading towards a situation where expulsion with a record that follows you will become the norm in the future. That's where we ought to be."
Stanford student-activists hope to help push their school and others toward that norm.
"I think that the university is worried about its reputation," said student Elisabeth Dee, a survivor of sexual assault who last October helped organize a "Carry That Weight" protest in solidarity with a Columbia University student who was allegedly raped by a friend and classmate. "And right now the reputation for all universities is if you expel, you're radical and crazy. What we're trying to do is swing that expectation to the other side: If you don't expel, you're crazy.
"We're trying to reframe how people think about it," she said.
But shifting the mindset of people in power at Stanford has not been an easy or clear-cut process.
Boardman, who was in charge of reviewing Francis' appeal of the sanctions imposed on the male student, ruled against her plea for expulsion, upholding the review panel's findings and citing its determination that the male student poses no danger to the Stanford community. The panel's finding was made in part due to the fact that Francis and the student had dated two years before the Jan. 1, 2014, assault, according to the original panel decision.
Boardman instead rescinded the male student's original sanctions a five-quarter suspension set to begin after graduation, community service and sexual-assault education and decided to withhold his diploma for two years to compensate for the serious harm the student caused Francis.
"I think that there is still some belief in what you might characterize as 'rape myths,''' Dauber said, "and that is the idea that somehow sexual assault could result from a mistake, a misunderstanding, youthful indiscretion, passions getting carried away."
She said another Stanford staff member put it to her this way: "Everybody gets 'no means no,' but I think that rubber meets the road when you have to then impose the consequence for that."
Some university administrators worry that mandatory expulsion will discourage students from reporting sexual assault.
"If we move to a situation where expulsion becomes the default, my fear is that panelists, who are only human, will find fewer of our students in violation if they're only 50.1 percent sure and the only sanction is, in effect, the university's death penalty," Boardman told Stanford Magazine in a January cover story on sexual assault.
But activist Dee disagreed: "I think if the administration stepped up, it would empower people to report."
Beyond that, it would say something she and other students say they haven't heard from the administration: "This is important; we stand behind you."
"So many Stanford people pride themselves on going to a liberal place, and we're so behind right now," Dee said. "We're so behind."