4 Lessons from the Stanford Sexual Assault Case: The Victims Statement Raises Questions about How Schools Conduct Investigations

By Tompkins, Anne; Jay, Joseph et al. | University Business, October 2016 | Go to article overview

4 Lessons from the Stanford Sexual Assault Case: The Victims Statement Raises Questions about How Schools Conduct Investigations


Tompkins, Anne, Jay, Joseph, Kukowski, Colleen, University Business


The day after her attacker was sentenced to six months in county jail, the woman who was violently sexually assaulted by former Stanford University student Brock Turner provided her victim impact statement to the online site Buzzfeed for publication (http://UBmag.me/bf). That statement, which immediately went viral, should be required reading for every college and university administrator.

Although Turner's prosecution played out in a California courtroom, the issues identified by the victim in her statement are highly relevant to college and university sexual assault investigations and adjudications. Schools are engaged in a high-stakes effort to fairly and justly address sexual assaults on campus. In order to do so, they must have a comprehensive plan for addressing each of the issues raised in this victim's powerful statement.

In light of what we have learned from the Stanford victim's statement, college and university administrators should consider the four lessons below and work to incorporate each of these lessons into their sexual assault investigations and adjudications.

The necessity of parallel proceedings

When sexual assaults occur off-campus or do not involve a student victim (as in the Stanford case), schools may be tempted to take a backseat and allow local law enforcement to handle the investigation, victim assistance and adjudication. To do so, however, would fail to protect students and run afoul of Title IX's requirements.

First, the slow pace of the criminal justice system means that even when defendants are found guilty and punished, their punishment will not immediately remedy on-campus public safety issues or hostile environments that may result from sexual assaults. As Stanford demonstrated with its quick response to the victim's sexual assault, schools must act promptly after an assault occurs to protect the safety and well-being of their students, regardless of whether there is an ongoing criminal proceeding.

Second, Title IX requires schools to conduct their own investigations even if there is an ongoing criminal investigation. Any school that knows, or reasonably should know, about a case of sexual assault must promptly investigate to determine what occurred, and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation, regardless of whether a Title IX complaint was filed. While schools are permitted to temporarily delay the fact-finding portion of their investigation while law enforcement gathers evidence, they must take immediate interim measures to protect the victim/s and students on campus. Schools that fail to conduct their own investigation while a criminal investigation is ongoing not only fail to protect their student body, they also render themselves vulnerable to a Title IX enforcement action.

Due process in Title IX proceedings

One of the more jarring passages in the victim's statement detailed how she went through the gut-wrenching process of preparing for and being cross-examined by the defendant's attorney during the trial. As painful as it may be for the victim, our criminal justice system guarantees defendants certain due process rights, including the right to cross-examine witnesses and present evidence in their defense.

While schools are not required to have the same robust procedural protections that are present in the criminal justice system, they can be held liable for denying accused students adequate procedural protections during sexual assault investigations and adjudications. The U.S. Department of Education advises schools to have a "balanced and fair process that provides the same opportunities to both parties."

However, determining how to integrate and maintain that balance in sexual assault investigations and adjudications is a nuanced process in and of itself. Schools must confront difficult questions--such as how they will allow accused students to offer an adequate defense while still protecting the complainant from emotional and psychological damage--in order to conduct proceedings that do not infringe on the rights of disciplined students. …

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