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Op-Ed: A Thumb on the Scale of Justice


In light of President Hennessy’s recent unilateral decision to change the burden of proof in student misconduct proceedings when sexual assault or domestic violence is alleged, we began to question the legitimacy of the fact-finding process in those proceedings. In so doing, we reviewed the training materials provided to hearing officers for those cases. Those materials confirmed our suspicion that Stanford is putting its thumb on the scale of justice. Quite simply, judicial panelists are trained to be biased against the accused.

It is a fundamental concept of American democracy, justice and due process that a fair tribunal is one with an impartial judge. Stanford students accused of misconduct have the right to judicial panelists free from bias.

Yet, Stanford trains its judicial panelists, who will hear and decide disciplinary proceedings involving allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence, that neutrality is not only unattainable but something which should be avoided. Neutrality, the panelists are trained, makes the fact-finder an accomplice to the abuse and further victimizes the complainants.

Specifically, panelists are provided with an article by Lundy Bancroft called “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men.” The article instructs fact-finders that, “When people take a neutral stand between you and your abusive partner, they are in effect supporting him and abandoning you, no matter how much they may claim otherwise.” Further, the panelists are taught that, “to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal.”

Another article provided to judicial panelists is equally biased against the accused, who is almost invariably referred to as a male. That document is from the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness and provides judicial panelists with “indicators” of an “abuser.” It states that an abuser will “feel victimized” and “act persuasive and logical.” An impartial training system would not teach judicial panelists that if an accused defends himself persuasively and logically, they should infer that he is an “abuser.” The Bancroft article admonishes, “Everyone should be very, very cautious in accepting a man’s claim that he has been wrongly accused of abuse or violence. The great majority of allegations of abuse — though not all — are substantially accurate. An abuser almost never ‘seems like the type.’”

Panelists are also provided with a document titled “Abuser Accountability,” which states that an “abuser” becomes accountable when he admits that his behavior was “unprovoked,” apparently ignoring the reality that instances of sexual assault and domestic violence are almost always relational and do not occur in a vacuum.

The intended effect of these materials is abundantly clear from the training evaluation, which asks participants to list three steps that “staff can take to effectively respond to people experiencing relationship abuse.” The goal of the training is apparently not to teach fact-finders how to be neutral, how to evaluate evidence for credibility and relevance or how to ensure that the accused is afforded his right to a fundamentally fair hearing. Rather, the purpose of the training is to indoctrinate judicial hearing officers with a particular ideology, which undermines the impartiality of prospective fact-finders.

These training materials are clearly intended for social and mental health workers who help victims of domestic violence in crisis — their necessary ideology must be that those victims are telling the truth. By contrast, a judge at a judicial hearing must weigh evidence in a fair and neutral manner. A fair judge must start from the proposition that neither party is automatically to be believed. Stanford should use training materials that encourage neutrality and impartiality, not ones that undercut those goals.

As long as Stanford trains its judicial officers with the materials currently provided, no accused student can expect to receive a fair hearing in the Stanford judicial process involving sexual assault or domestic violence.


Mike Armstrong, B.A. 1970 and Daniel Barton, J.D. 1988


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