With 125 reported cases of sexual assault on the Stanford campus since 1996, it is easy to make the argument that sexual assault is the most important challenge we face. Sexual assault in any shape or form undermines the ability of our campus to provide a safe and healthy space for its students to both live and learn.
One incredibly important tool in preventing sexual assault at any university is a fair and comprehensive judicial process that (1) encourages those with legitimate sexual assault cases to come forward, (2) rightly identifies those who are guilty and (3) delivers punishment against perpetrators that gives at least a semblance of justice and closure to the victim. Without such a system, Stanford cannot hope to be credible in its commitment to students, especially women, to take every case of sexual assault seriously.
The Alternative Review Process (ARP) for sexual assault cases was created in April 2010 with the intention of addressing these challenges. The new ARP process, among other things, extended the statue of limitations on bringing a sexual assault case forward from six months up to two years. It also protected victims and the accused from cross-examination. A year later, President Hennessy strengthened the ARP when he responded to the U.S. Department of Education’s “Dear Colleague” letter by lowering the standard of guilt in ARP cases from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to “preponderance of evidence”–or, roughly speaking, “more likely to be guilty than not.”
Since these landmark decisions, the ARP has been subject to a number of important changes and to many criticisms–some valid, some absurd. One of the most troublesome criticisms has been that of the lowered standard of guilt in ARP cases. Former ASSU President Michael Cruz 12, for example, pointed to the potential for a party found guilty in an ARP case to sue the University for violating students’ legal protections as stipulated by the ASSU Constitution. This argument is false and encourages a bad policy of returning ARP cases to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” benchmark.
As Cruz himself stated, the Student Judicial Charter of 1997 empowers the University President to override the ASSU Constitution under “extraordinary circumstances.” It is clear that the Dear Colleague letter, as a federally endorsed legal position that requires Stanford to lower its burden of proof in sexual assault cases on the basis of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, and by extension threatens to cut federal funding to Stanford, creates an extraordinary circumstance. Others, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), have argued that Stanford should stand up to the U.S. Department of Education because this Title IX argument is flawed and the burden of proof is too low. I disagree.
Title IX is intended to prevent a person, on the basis of sex, from being “excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” The reality of sexual assault is that this issue disproportionally affects women; according to the U.S Department of Justice, a woman was more than three times more likely to suffer rape or sexual assault than a man in the years between 1993 and 2008.
Furthermore, when considering Stanford’s judicial system, one must contextualize it within our own legal system. While criminal cases demand evidence to prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” civil courts often allow “preponderance of evidence” as sufficient cause for guilt. A famous example is O.J. Simpson, who was found liable (read: guilty) in civil suit for the wrongful death of Ron Goldman on the basis of “preponderance of guilt.”
A university legal system is a far weaker judicial authority than a civil court. Since a university lacks the power to impose punitive damage, students can choose to drop out should they be charged with a fine, injunction or other punishment. Stanford’s judicial processes should therefore be free to adjudicate by an even lower standard–for example, that of “substantial evidence.”
Ultimately, the big picture in the upcoming ASSU town meetings and all future debates on sexual assault judicial processes should be that the ARP, combined with the lower “preponderance of evidence” benchmark, has contributed toward significant progress in improving our university’s response to sexual assault. This is particularly true in the realm of moving victims of sexual assault who report these offenses on a path to gain justice through the University’s own judicial system.
This is a measurable fact. Out of 21 reported incidences between 2009 and today, 12 made it to hearings, as compared to only three cases going to judicial hearings out of the 104 reported in the thirteen years prior. Maintaining a reasonable standard of guilt is essential to continuing this trend.
There are a number of other, more important issues to be considered in the debate over ARP, among them the exceedingly low number of reported sexual assault cases. An April 2012 study by Stanford’s Health Promotion Services found that 360 out of 4000 (9 percent) students on campus reported having being sexually assaulted at Stanford. The number of incidents reported, however, remains fewer than 10 per year, nearly the same pace as before the installation of ARP. Debates over the definition of guilt are unnecessary and detract from discussion and progress in other areas of the sexual assault judicial review process.
Finally, I want to take on those who say this lowered standard is unfair to the accused. Ultimately, I believe that Stanford students are able bear the responsibility of acting in a manner that does not anywhere approach that benchmark of preponderance of evidence of a sexual assault. We should hold ourselves to high standards, rather than be concerned about our freedom to act irresponsibly in situations where there is legal uncertainty regarding our sexual interactions with others.
The strength of our anti-assault judicial processes depends on their consequences being credible. Reinstating standards deemed legally unjust under Title IX would undermine that credibility, both as a preventative tool and as a means of seeking justice.
Jonathan Poto ’13