Two former students say Stanford offered them therapy money to drop federal complaints about sexual assault cases – allegations the University disputes as misleading. The women’s complaints, filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), argue the University mishandled their assaults.
One of the women is Leah Francis ’14, who in 2014 publicly blasted Stanford’s decision not to expel a fellow student the University found responsible for sexually assaulting her. Francis said Stanford reached out to her in October with a settlement deal communicated between lawyers: The University would pay $60,000 toward Francis’ therapy if she closed her complaint against Stanford. Francis’ filing prompted one of four federal investigations currently probing Stanford’s response to sexual violence.
Both Francis and another woman who spoke anonymously to BuzzFeed News said they refused Stanford’s proposed settlement because they wanted federal investigations into Stanford’s practices to continue.
“Stanford’s strategy appears to be to dangle badly needed money for mental health services in front of survivors in exchange for secrecy,” Francis wrote on a GoFundMe page launched Wednesday to raise money for her next two years of counseling. “I want to keep the door open for Stanford administration to get the guidance they need from OCR to improve how they treat sexual assault victims.”
Even if Francis and other women had decided to withdraw their federal complaints, the OCR would not necessarily stop its investigations into Stanford. The OCR may decide to keep examining cases after withdrawal if it suspects an institution has “systemic issues.”
“Stanford does not have and has never had the intention of curtailing any federal Title IX investigation, nor could it do so even if it desired to,” said Stanford spokesperson Lisa Lapin in an email to The Daily.
According to Stanford, negotiations originated with Francis’ lawyers, who asked for the therapy money as part of a settlement to avert what Lapin called “costly and time-consuming litigation.” Lapin said Francis was asked to drop her OCR filing due to technicalities.
“Generally, and as is customary in such situations, when Stanford considers a financial settlement in response to a demand from a lawyer threatening a lawsuit, the university requires that the party receiving the money withdraw any personal claims under which they could receive more money for the same matter – in this case, through the OCR process,” Lapin told The Daily.
Lapin said she could not discuss further because Stanford is “ethically bound” not to divulge details of private settlement discussions. The University has asked Francis’ attorneys for permission to speak more openly and is waiting on their response, she said.
Francis, who did not respond to a request for comment, now seeks $11,000 in donations for therapy that she says is “much needed” to address anxiety and depression caused by her assault in 2014. Her GoFundMe page states that, to date, she has paid about $5,500 per year out-of-pocket for treatment. Whatever contributions Francis raises beyond her goal will go toward two organizations aimed at preventing sexual violence: the YWCA Sexual Assault Center at Stanford and AWARE in her hometown of Juneau, Alaska.
As of Thursday night, the online campaign had raised almost $3,000 from nearly 80 people. It had been shared hundreds of times on social media.
According to Lapin, Stanford provides free therapy for victims of sexual assault while they remain at Stanford, and in some cases pays for services after graduation as well. However, Lapin could not disclose what financial support Stanford provided Francis in particular.
News of the alleged settlements with Francis and another woman broke as Stanford faces intense scrutiny over its response to sexual violence. The now-infamous sexual assault case of former student Brock Turner thrust Stanford into the national spotlight over the summer, and a lawsuit filed Monday alleges the University showed “deliberate indifference” toward multiple instances of sexual assault by a male student.
Shortly after the student’s graduation in 2014, Stanford banned him from campus for 15 years after finding him guilty of “serious sexual misconduct.” However, the woman behind the lawsuit said she came across her attacker on campus again this February. According to the suit, campus police told her that there was no official record of a ban that would let authorities remove the man; when the woman showed a University letter about her sexual assault case’s outcome, they reportedly said the ban was still a “gray area.”
Michele Dauber, Frederick I. Richman Professor of Law and often-vocal critic of Stanford’s approach to sexual assault, said that latest complaints surfacing against the University reinforce the need for accountability and consequences surrounding sexual violence.
“If the allegations about the settlement negotiations are accurate, that’s furthermore upsetting or disturbing because I think that we should not be seeing OCR as an adversary and welcoming their assistance in helping to improve policies and procedures at Stanford,” she said, adding that assault victims should receive mental health support unconditionally.
Dauber also took issue with Lapin’s portrayal of how a settlement to withdraw an OCR complaint would affect federal investigations. Lapin said that withdrawal would only mean the complainant cannot seek further money through the OCR’s determinations. In response, Dauber said the OCR cannot force a school to give remedies such as therapy money to an individual person.
“And obviously, any amounts already paid for counseling would simply be considered to reduce any amount for therapy the University might later agree to pay,” she said.
Lapin’s assertion that withdrawal of cases would not affect investigations is “speculative,” Dauber added, arguing that the OCR has many cases to review and could easily decide to put resources elsewhere.
More than 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. are currently under OCR’s scrutiny for potentially violating Title IX by failing to adequately address sexual assault on their campuses. Title IX, a federal law since 1972, forbids sex-based discrimination by any educational program that receives federal funding.
Dauber also criticized what she viewed as Stanford’s attempts to “shut down” discussion of sexual assault, saying a University official asked her “very recently” to stop talking about any sexual assault and harassment cases alleged to have taken place on campus. According to Dauber, Stanford administration told her that she should not discuss any case – inside or outside the classroom and “even in very vague and hypothetical terms” – without the consent of “all parties” involved. Dauber understood “all parties” to mean both the victim and accused.
“I told the University very clearly that I would not comply with their request because if I did it would make it impossible for me to continue to teach, write or advocate on this subject,” she said.
While Lapin is unable to comment on specific employee matters, she disputed Dauber’s story and said Stanford “would never tell a faculty member that they cannot talk about instances of sexual assault or harassment at Stanford.”
“Stanford may ask a faculty member to use good judgment, and not discuss confidential information they may have obtained about a sexual assault survivor’s actual case in public or with other students without the survivor’s permission,” she said. “In many ways, Stanford is similar to a small community, so even if a student’s name is not used, it is very possible that someone could recognize the student from the description of the assault.”
Dauber said that any efforts to restrict her speech are concerning primarily because they hinder a larger mission of reforming Stanford’s response to sexual assault.
“They’re getting in the way of how we’re going to improve and also getting in the way potentially of the mission of the University,” she said.
Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ Stanford.edu.