At most colleges, if you're found responsible for sexual assault, you may be suspended. But at Stanford University, you'll likely be booted off campus permanently: Starting this fall, officials recommend making expulsion the default punishment for sexual assault.
"Going forward, if a Stanford student is found responsible for sexual assault as it is defined in university policy, the expected sanction in such cases should be permanent separation from the university—expulsion," a task force of faculty, students, and staff wrote in a report published this month. Panels reviewing a student's case will be expected to consider expulsion first before moving on to less serious punishments, the report added.
The policy recommendation is a somewhat unusual one for a college. Schools have been quick to denounce sexual assault, with many overhauling their policies to comply with Department of Education's guidelines and many others publicly announcing their commitment to eradicating sexual assault from their campuses. Yet few have gone as far as Stanford in recommending expulsion, first and foremost, as the norm for sexual assault cases. Most remain intentionally vague about punishments: Harvard says (pdf) community members who've committed sexual assault may face "sanctions up to, and including, termination, dismissal, or expulsion, as determined by the appropriate officials." Yale, similarly, says panels "may recommend penalties up to and including expulsion."
Stanford's proposed policy has the potential to send a strong message to both sexual assault victims and would-be perpetrators, says Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center.
"It tells victims on campus that Stanford takes this issue very seriously, and they won’t just put someone on probation, or make them write a letter of apology, or do a lot of these ineffective punishments," Bruno says. "What they'll do is come down as hard as they possibly can [on] the person who is found to have perpetrated this crime."
There are compelling, albeit thorny, reasons why schools do not always recommend expulsion—reasons that have nothing to do with mounting criticisms of the campus adjudication process. In the past, many victim-rights advocates have said rules that push expulsion may discourage students from reporting sexual assault to officials. By taking complainants' choices out of their hands, the officials fear even fewer people will come forward about what's already an underreported crime.
In recent years, schools that have expelled students over sexual assault have also been sued. "If someone is guilty of rape, expulsion is sort of a laughably insufficient penalty, but if a school gets the wrong person, and they go with expulsion—the most severe sanction that a school can impose—they've just done the worst possible thing they can do," says Robert Shibley, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which has watched campus sexual assault policy closely.
The proponents behind the new expulsion recommendations at Stanford acknowledged the new sanctions were likely to be "the most controversial recommendation" in their report. The rule "has inspired dozens of heated debates in our conversations, town halls, feedback forms and rallies," two seniors on the task force, Elizabeth Woodson and Benjy Mercer-Golden, wrote in the campus newspaper.
Stanford's recommended policy (pdf) includes a number of protections for the accused. Panels must unanimously agree to expel a student, whereas for less severe punishments, only two of three panel members have to agree to the sanction. To make sure decision-makers are impartial, the task force recommends undergraduates—who may have only "a couple degrees of separation" between the accused and the complainant—be excluded from the panels hearing sexual assault cases. Shibley, who believes that "as long as colleges are in the business, there's not going to be an ideal way for them to handle these cases," described the recommendations as "surprisingly thoughtful."