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University counters lawsuit claiming mishandling of sexual assault cases

(ALISA ROYER/The Stanford Daily)

In a public response to last week’s lawsuit alleging Stanford treated a serial sexual assault offender with “deliberate indifference,” the University argues that it did all in its power to deal with the man given an early victim’s reluctance to pursue a formal investigation.

The University’s rebuttal – a 29-page court filing published on Stanford News – counters claims filed Dec. 5 by a female graduate student, whom the lawsuit refers to as Jane Doe. The woman says that Stanford did not take serious enough action against a male student – referred to in both parties’ statements as “Mr. X”— who sexually assaulted other female students before hurting Doe. Doe’s lawsuit details incidents in which Mr. X raped and choked a former girlfriend nearly to unconsciousness and became physically and verbally abusive when denied sex, at one point telling a girl to “go kill herself.”

While Stanford expressed “sympathy” for Doe and her fellow victims, it said there is “no support” for allegations the University mishandled their cases.

“Sometimes, despite extraordinary efforts by committed staff, Stanford must choose between imperfect solutions in order to comply with a victim’s wishes,” the University’s court filing reads. “Imperfect solutions should not be confused with deliberate indifference.”

Moreover, Stanford says the lawsuit unfairly erodes students’ trust in Stanford’s resources for victims.

“Unfounded allegations, such as those in the Complaint, could have a chilling effect on survivors of sexual assault, whom Stanford encourages to come forward,” the document says.

By the University’s account, staff encouraged Mr. X’s first victim to launch a formal inquiry on multiple occasions beginning in 2011. However, the school was only able to give her a no-contact order because she refused to name her attacker for almost a year and repeatedly declined to participate in Stanford’s disciplinary process. When Doe and another woman brought a formal complaint against Mr. X in April and June of 2014, Stanford says, the University promptly investigated the man and found him guilty of “serious sexual misconduct” in July.

Doe, on the other hand, says campus officials’ manner discouraged victims from prosecuting their attacker. For example, the lawsuit says, a counselor questioned whether one woman chose her clothing in order to “appear sexually available.”

“After the Stanford counselor’s victim-blaming response and [an Academic Director’s] description of the difficulty of taking criminal or administrative action, Ms. A was convinced that Stanford would not support her if she pursued any disciplinary action,” the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit also criticizes Stanford for not notifying Doe at the time of her complaint that other women had previously reported Mr. X for sexual assault. In its court statement, Stanford responds that it was bound by privacy laws not to share others’ cases.

Mr. X, Doe and one more accuser agreed to an “informal resolution” in the summer of 2014 that issued no-contact directives and banned the man from campus for 10 years, later extended to 15 years. Mr. X still graduated and received his degrees. According to Stanford, Doe chose an informal agreement to avoid counter-allegations brought against her by Mr. X., who claimed after Doe’s complaint that Doe tried to “coerce” him sexually.

Doe says Stanford pressured her to resolve the case informally before she went abroad in part so that Mr. X could receive his degrees quickly and not lose his job. As for the man’s claims against Doe, Stanford states it did not find enough evidence to suggest Doe broke a Stanford policy.

Law professor Michele Dauber, who acted as Doe’s main “support person” throughout her case, said she raised concerns about pressures to accept informal resolutions in a letter last December to Lauren Schoenthaler, senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access. While she declined to comment on specific facts of the lawsuit, Dauber said there were many reasons – from retaliatory complaints to low chances of more serious sanctions under a formal process– that could lead a victim to accept a resolution with “frustration and resignation rather than satisfaction.”

Doe’s lawsuit also questions Stanford’s handling of an incident in which Mr. X reportedly returned to campus in violation of his ban. According to the suit, when contacted, the Stanford Department of Public Safety said they had no record of the ban, calling the order a “gray area” that they could not enforce.

In contrast, Stanford says officers responded “within minutes” and searched unsuccessfully for Mr. X through the night. In response to that incident, Stanford created a “stay away database” that can remind banned people to avoid campus every six months.

Stanford’s post about Doe’s allegations, titled “Information for the Stanford Community about Jane Doe Lawsuit,” is notable for its length and specificity. Although privacy laws typically limit what the University can publicize about an individual student’s case, Stanford spokesperson Lisa Lapin explained in an email to The Daily that federal laws give Stanford the “right to defend a legal claim made against the university.” The University’s point-by-point response to the court becomes public once submitted, she said.

While The Daily’s Editorial Board criticized the University for publishing extensive information on multiple victims’ cases in its statement, spokesperson Lapin says removing details was out of the question.

“We cannot alter or abridge any information that is stated in a court filing,” she said.

Doe’s lawyers did not respond with comment but clarified that Doe is not speaking to reporters.

Contact Hannah Knowles at hknowles ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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