A New York Times story describing Stanford University's "struggles and pitfalls" in adjudicating sexual-assault cases -- explored through the case of a former female student who said she was raped by a current member of the football team -- was quickly condemned by the university as an inaccurate assessment of its efforts to "aggressively to address the scourge of sexual assault."
The Dec. 29 article, titled "A Majority Agreed She Was Raped by a Stanford Football Player. That Wasn't Enough," details the 2015 case, in which the football player claimed he and the woman had had consensual sex. The Times identified neither the woman nor the player, who did not respond to requests for interviews, according to the article. The story drew from interviews with the woman, campus administrators and professors, legal experts and more than 100 pages of documents from Stanford's internal proceedings on the case.
The Palo Alto Weekly attempted to contact the woman in the case, but she did not return requests for comment.
The article examines Stanford's procedures for adjudicating sexual violence, including what the reporters called an "uncommonly high bar" requiring at least four of five members on a panel to find the accused to be responsible. In this case, according to the Times, only three out of five members of two separate panels -- one after the woman appealed her case -- concluded the football player committed sexual assault, so he was not deemed responsible and was not punished. (The New York Times said he played in the Sun Bowl, which Stanford won the day after the story was published.)
Stanford has since launched a new, pilot adjudication process in which a panel of three extensively trained panelists must unanimously agree to find a student responsible.
Stanford is among the many college and universities across the country that "have struggled to balance the desire and legal obligation to cultivate a safe campus, where victims feel comfortable coming forward, with maintaining due process for the accused," New York Times reporters Joe Drape and Marc Tracy wrote.
"At Stanford, however, that effort has set off a particularly vigorous debate, as a school that is an innovator across fields and has a sterling image to protect faces a community in which many believe it has fallen short of leading on one of the thorniest issues of the day," they wrote.
Stanford quickly defended its handling of this and other cases, calling the article one-sided, inaccurate and "incomplete." The same day the story was published, Stanford released a statement and posted a "questions and responses" page rebutting certain elements of the article.
The university "holds students accountable" and has "worked to confront sexual assault squarely and aggressively," Stanford said in its statement.
"We also confront in our work the reality that while some cases are clear-cut, in difficult cases there unfortunately will be individuals deeply unhappy with some outcomes," the university said. "Our experience is that students on both sides of these cases sometimes express unhappiness."
In an email to the Weekly, New York Times Sports Editor Jason Stallman wrote that the story is "100 percent accurate and stands on solid ground."
"Nothing that Stanford officials have provided changes the essential premise: A football player twice was found by a majority to be responsible for a sexual assault and paid no consequence," Stallman wrote.
"Nor did Stanford provide any information that would alter the larger takeaway of this story, the troubling difficulty that universities encounter in adjudicating these cases. The woman who accused the football player of rape went through a process that, by dint of her winning an appeal and second hearing, was marred by procedural errors."
Stallman noted that every independent expert the Times reporters interviewed for the story was critical of Stanford's current adjudication system.
In 2016, the university said it oversaw 16 cases that were charged under federal civil-rights law Title IX, including for sexual assault, stalking and sexual harassment, and found 13 people responsible. One of those students was expelled through a new process adopted in 2016 — a non-hearing resolution, or a proposed set of remedies that both parties, accused and accuser, must agree to in order to proceed. This addition has been criticized by some as de-facto plea bargaining, a criticism Stanford rejected in its statement.
Since implementing the three-person panel in February 2016, there has been no case where a split vote has prevented a "finding of liability," Stanford said. As is standard and recommended by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Stanford relies on a "preponderance of evidence" standard, or that it is more likely than not that an incident happened. (This is the same standard of proof used in civil cases but lower than what is required in criminal trials.)
Despite the university's recent adoption of expulsion as the expected punishment for a student found responsible of sexual assault, Provost John Etchemendy told The New York Times that the university does not take that outcome lightly.
"Imagine a senior, who has paid four years of Stanford tuition," Etchemendy told the Times. "Being expelled is really a life-changing punishment. I think we as an institution have a duty to take that very seriously."
Although the New York Times reported that Stanford originally told the Times there had been no expulsions for sexual assault since the new Title IX process was rolled out (later correcting it to one), after the story was published the university said the total was actually four, since 2014.
In a statement to the Weekly, Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said the university has decided to categorize as expulsions cases where a student accused of sexual violence who voluntary withdraws from school, as Brock Turner quickly did after being arrested for sexual assault in 2015, or leave the university through the non-hearing resolution process, as Stanford said one student did last year.
Stanford also noted that "student-athletes receive no special treatment" in the university's investigation and discipline of sexual violence and that it would have been inappropriate to inform the football coach, David Shaw, of the proceedings. Shaw told the Times that he knew a "proceeding was happening" involving the player but did not know the charge and saw no reason to suspend him without further information.
"Unless there is reason — for safety — we do not inform the individuals' teachers, their conductor in the choir if they're in the choir, the football coach if they're on the football team, or any other head of an activity that they participate in," Etchemendy told The New York Times.
According to Stanford, the football team — which represents about 3 percent of all undergraduate men — has collectively since 2010 been accused in approximately 3 percent of all Title IX allegations.
"That is, Stanford football players are not overly represented in Title IX complaints based on their percent of the overall male undergraduate population," Stanford said.
Stanford has been in the spotlight recently for several sexual-assault cases — most visibly that of former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, but also a lawsuit alleging the university acted with "deliberate indifference" to reports of sexual assault and a former student who said Stanford offered her $60,000 to cover therapy expenses on the condition she withdraw a federal complaint she filed against the university.
Stanford has vigorously denied both allegations.
The university noted it continues to seek feedback on its new Title IX process, which is being monitored by an advisory committee made up of faculty and students.
The Palo Alto Weekly has created a Storify archive with coverage of sexual-assault issues at Stanford University. To view it, go to storify.com/paloaltoweekly.