After Stanford University concluded that one of its students sexually assaulted a classmate, campus officials imposed what they called a very serious sanction: a suspension of two academic quarters.
The victim said it felt like a second assault.
“Providing my rapist with a gracious invitation back to Stanford pending a brief period of ‘reflection’ disrespects myself and the moral stature of Stanford as an institution,” Sinéad Talley wrote on Dec. 20, 2016, in her unsuccessful appeal. She wanted Stanford to expel the man she said had been her friend until he raped her while she was in a drunken stupor.
Stanford reported the assault in 2016 to campus police, as required by state law. But Talley chose not to pursue the case through the criminal justice system. Instead, like many college students who report sexual assault, she turned to her university’s internal justice system.
Now Talley is speaking out to accuse the world-renowned university of protecting students who commit sexual assault by downplaying the severity of their behavior and rarely expelling them.
The data appear to back her up: Stanford received reports of 84 campus rapes from 2014 to 2016, according to information the university provided to the U.S. Department of Education, which requires campuses to collect crime statistics under the Clery Act. Stanford told the federal agency it received 33 of the rape reports in 2016 alone.
Yet the university expelled no students for sexual assault in those years. Instead, it arranged for three students to leave voluntarily, including former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner in 2015-16, said spokesman E.J. Miranda. He said two students have been expelled for sexual assault, in 2001-02 and 2006-07.
Miranda said the university could not investigate all 84 reports of rape because some complainants never identified an assailant. Some who were identified couldn’t be expelled because they weren’t students, he said.
But questions remain even after a closer look.
In a 2016-17 report by Stanford on sexual misconduct on campus, the university said it conducted 12 investigations into reports of “nonconsensual intercourse,” but lacked enough information to investigate another 12. The hearing panel found violations in four cases — against three students and a visiting researcher. Names are not included in the report, but one of those cases was Talley’s.
Photo: Leah Millis / The Chronicle 2016
A woman leaves the main quad at Stanford University in June 2016. Stanford received reports of 84 campus rapes from 2014 to 2016, according to information the university provided to the U.S. Department of Education, but no one was expelled.
In Talley’s case, the panel deciding punishment did not expel the student because it found he didn’t know she was incapacitated and didn’t cause her to become incapacitated.
Yet in another case in the 2016-17 report, the hearing panel decided against expelling a student even though his offense met Stanford’s threshold for expulsion, according to a footnote in the report. That is, the student committed sexual assault either by force, by incapacitating his victim, or by knowing that his victim was incapacitated and having sex with her anyway.
The panel “determined that a three-quarter suspension was the appropriate sanction,” the footnote said, without explanation.
“Stanford has had tremendous reluctance to hold students accountable even when they are found responsible for the most serious violations. They just won’t expel them. Instead, they give these laughably lenient penalties,” said Michele Dauber, the Stanford law professor who led a successful recall campaignlast spring against the judge widely perceived to have imposed a too-light sentence on Turner, the freshman swimmer convicted of sexual assault in 2015.
Dauber had not heard of Talley’s situation until The Chronicle described it. But she and several current and former students familiar with Stanford’s policies agreed with Talley’s assessment that the university fails to adequately punish students who commit sexual assault by kicking them out of school.
The university defended itself.
“We do not tolerate sexual assault at Stanford,” Miranda said. “We seek to carefully weigh the facts and treat all parties fairly through our adjudication process, including the investigation and imposed sanctions.”
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle
Sinead Talley (right) is accuses Stanford University of protecting students who commit sexual assault by downplaying the severity of their behavior and rarely expelling them.
Talley said her experience shows that Stanford does tolerate sexual assault.
The Chronicle reviewed university records of the case, interviewed Talley and attempted many times to reach the other former student involved, without success. Stanford officials responded only to written questions relayed through Miranda.
The Chronicle is not naming the former student because he was not charged with a crime. The Chronicle does not typically name victims of sexual assault unless, like Talley, they wish to be identified.
Rush week was in full force at Stanford in April 2014 when a friend of Talley’s accepted a bid from his favorite fraternity. He invited her to the celebration.
In a written account she gave to Stanford investigators, Talley said she felt exhausted on the night of the party and hadn’t been sleeping well or eating enough for some time. She had a few drinks at the party. Her next memory was waking up the next morning naked and sore, aware that the student was in her room, and aware when he “slipped out,” according to the account, a long letter she wrote to the student two years later detailing her experience.
“I didn’t report what you did,” Talley wrote. “I refused to acknowledge that it had been rape for weeks afterward.”
She blamed herself.
“I made excuses for you, convinced myself that I could have consented in my blacked-out state, cursed myself for binge drinking, questioned whether I had given you the wrong idea. I held onto that shame and guilt, as though it was ever mine to carry,” she wrote.
Then she learned something that changed her mind. The student had spread the news among their friends that they’d had a “hook-up,” Talley wrote.
She waited two years, then reported the assault to the university days before graduating in 2016.
“My course load was strenuous,” said Talley, who graduated with a degree in human biology. “I didn’t know any other way than to put it by the wayside.”
Talley said her experience as an American Indian influenced her decision to report the assault to the university instead of law enforcement. “As a Karuk person, I’ve seen a lot of police violence. I’ve seen the system fail, and I don’t have a lot of trust.”
Like all universities governed by Title IX, the federal civil rights law that outlaws sex discrimination on campuses, Stanford has a system for handling allegations of sexual misconduct, from harassment to assault. The system lets them investigate, hold hearings and mete out discipline. It doesn’t have the force of law.
In December 2016, a three-member hearing panel — chosen from a pool of faculty, staff and graduate students — concluded unanimously, as required, that Talley’s former friend had sexually assaulted her.
“The preponderance of the evidence indicates that (he) committed sexual assault by virtue of (her) state of incapacitation,” the panel wrote.
Talley asked that the student be expelled, noting that “since I was drunk, I could not give consent.”
In cases of intoxication, California criminal law says a rape has occurred if the person is prevented from resisting because he or she is drunk — and that the accused knew or reasonably should have known.
Stanford’s policy in 2014, the year of Talley’s assault, said that a person must consent to sexual intercourse — and that a drunk person cannot give consent.
Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle
Stanford graduate Sinead Talley wrote in her 2016 appeal, “Providing my rapist with a gracious invitation back to Stanford pending a brief period of ‘reflection’ disrespects myself and the moral stature of Stanford as an institution.”
The student argued in his written statement that he believed Talley had consented.
“Sadly, I was intoxicated, too, so my judgment was impaired,” he wrote in his defense. “I had no idea that she was in a blackout. ... I thought I was having consensual sex.”
The panel wrote: “We believe a reasonable, sober person would have recognized (Talley’s) incapacitation, her inability to understand the nature of the sexual situation, and thus her inability to give consent.”
The panel agreed the sexual assault occurred but that the student did not know she was intoxicated and decided that expelling him was “not appropriate.”
Instead, it imposed a two-quarter suspension, with training in consent and the effects of alcohol.
“It is our sincere hope that this very serious sanction will enable (him) to return to Stanford fully committed to maintaining the integrity and safety” of the community, the panel wrote.
The student’s suspension was to begin after he completed another suspension “currently in place,” according to the 2016 record.
Miranda, Stanford’s spokesman, declined to explain the other suspension but said it was not for sexual misconduct.
He said the student never returned to Stanford.
The question of whether Stanford should expel students who sexually assault their classmates erupted on campus in spring 2014, when a student named Leah Francis organized rallies to protest the university’s handling of the issue. That spring, campus investigators determined that a student had sexually assaulted Francis in January. He was suspended briefly and allowed to earn a degree.
The Francis case energized protesters, who rallied on campus. An additional 7,000 people signed a petition urging the university to expel every student found responsible for sexual assault.
“Leah’s case shook Stanford,” said Tessa Ormenyi, who graduated with Francis in 2014 and co-founded #StandWithLeah.
Soon another case shook the university — and the world — after Turner, the Stanford swimmer, sexually assaulted a woman outside a frat party in January 2015. This time, the anonymous victim, calling herself Emily Doe, brought criminal charges. At the sentencing hearing that June, Doe read aloud a letter she’d written to Turner describing the depths to which his crime had affected her.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Turner to six months in county jail.
Social media went wild, criticizing the sentence as a wrist slap. At graduation, several students carried signs condemning their school. “Stanford protects rapists,” read one. “150 years of rape culture,” read another, referring to the age of the venerable university. The Turner case also prompted California lawmakers to expand the state’s definition of rape.
Dauber gathered nearly 100,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure to recall the judge. In June, Persky became the first California judge in 86 years to be voted out of office, with 60 percent of the vote against him.
Amid it all, Stanford convened a task force to study its response to sexual misconduct. Then, in February 2016, university officials enacted a policy making expulsion the “expected sanction” for sexual assault. But they did so only after narrowing the definition of sexual assault.
Under the new rules, anyone accused of having sex with an incapacitated person — someone too drunk to give consent, for example — must have caused the incapacitation or have “knowingly taken advantage of” an incapacitated person to be found responsible for sexual assault.
Those rules now make it nearly impossible for any Stanford student to be held responsible for sexual assault, said Emma Tsurkov, a doctoral student in sociology, who serves as the student government’s representative on sexual violence.
“The easy way to get out of it is for the (accused) person to say they didn’t know” the victim was incapacitated, she said.
In Talley’s case, that’s what her assailant told the panel that would decide his punishment.
When it declined to expel the student, Talley appealed.
The appeal officer offered a summary of the hearing panel’s reason for finding the student responsible for sexual assault in the first place. The panel found that Talley “had consumed a large amount of alcohol and, given her diminutive stature, compounded by the lack of sleep and skipped meals, was unable to give consent. The panel further found that although (he) may not have known that (she) was incapacitated, a reasonably sober person would have known.”
In rejecting Talley’s request, the appeal officer said the panel had “reasonably concluded that (he) neither induced nor knowingly took advantage of an incapacitated person.”
Tsurkov called the panel’s decision troubling.
“The fact that we do not expel people who commit sexual assault means we tolerate their presence in our community,” she said. “I don’t think people walk around on campus contemplating rape. But in the moment, if they thought they could lose their place at Stanford — that they could get expelled — I think that could have a deterring effect.”
Stanford signed an agreement with Talley in March to reimburse her for fees associated with the case, provide mental health counseling for five years, and pay her $10,000 for that purpose. It also agreed to hear her feedback about the university’s process.
At a recent visit to the San Francisco office of her lawyer, Michael Bien, Talley appeared disheartened.
“To get to the end and have them say, ‘Yeah, we unanimously agree, he definitely assaulted you’ — and that warrants zero action,” was beyond stressful, she said.
The outcome “is not disappointing,” she added. “It’s criminal.”
Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NanetteAsimov