Thursday, March 5, 2015

The undergraduate and the mentor: The confusing world of Title IX sex abuse and Universities deciding guilt or innocence

NY Times   On a weekend in March almost three years ago, Ellie Clougherty flew from London to Rome with Joe Lonsdale. She was a 21-year-old junior at Stanford University, and it was her first trip to Italy. Lonsdale, then 29, was a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and he booked a room for them for two nights in a luxury hotel — a converted Renaissance mansion in the shadow of the Pantheon — and arranged a special excursion, with a friend of his who is an architect, to an archaeological site amid the ruins of the Golden House on Palatine Hill, overlooking the Colosseum. Under a light gray sky, they stood on plexiglass bridges and looked down at the uncovered remains of what is thought to be a fabled rotating dining room that the Emperor Nero built for extravagant banquets. Lonsdale is a Roman-history buff, and he told Clougherty about the emperors, praising their civilization and engineering feats.[...]

Clougherty and Lonsdale had been dating over the previous couple of weeks, while he was her assigned mentor for an undergraduate course at Stanford called Technology Entrepreneurship, Engineering 145. The limited-enrollment class offered a combination of academics, business skills and access to Silicon Valley that has made Stanford the most-sought-after university in the country, with the most competitive undergraduate admissions and among the highest donations. More than any other school, Stanford is the gateway to the tech world, and computer science is the most popular major. Each year, new young multimillionaires are minted, some just months after graduation.[...]

After sightseeing in Rome, Lonsdale and Clougherty were together in the hotel room they were sharing when she started dressing for evening Mass. Lonsdale came up behind her and kissed her, touching her neck and hair and telling her she was beautiful. She had told him she was a virgin. Both agree they had sex. But what actually went on between them that night, and throughout their yearlong relationship, would become highly contested. After the relationship ended, Clougherty accused Lonsdale of sexual assault. Stanford investigated whether he broke the university’s rule against “consensual sexual and romantic relationships” between students and their mentors and, later, whether he raped her. The findings from the investigations have sparked a war of allegations and interpretations, culminating last month with dueling lawsuits, filled with damaging accusations. This case, which has been picked up by the media, does not fit neatly into the narratives that have fueled an ongoing national conversation about sexual assault of students on campus. But it exposes the risks of Stanford’s open door to Silicon Valley and the pressure that universities are under to do more for students who say they’ve been raped. It also reveals the complexity of trying to determine the truth in a high-stakes case like this one.[...]

On March 1, Clougherty went to Stanford’s counseling center. She said that Lonsdale had forced her to have sex when she didn’t want to and also talked about the man who accosted her in the restaurant bathroom when she was 10. The university psychologist noted in a report that she “seems to have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from current and past trauma.” Clougherty went home to Virginia and spent days crying and rocking in a corner of her family’s living room. Clougherty embarked on therapy twice a week with Keith Saylor, a clinical psychologist who treated her eating disorder. He used prolonged-exposure therapy, a treatment developed for combat-related disorders, in which a therapist prompts a patient to describe deeply traumatic events. Later, patients listen to tapes of their sessions at home every day in an attempt to drain the memories of their power. [...]

Meanwhile on campuses throughout the country, a movement was taking shape. A growing number of students were coming forward to criticize their universities for the handling of sexual-assault cases. They had support from the government. In 2011, the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education sent a letter to every college and university in the country that receives federal funding, as almost all do, clarifying that under Title IX, the federal law passed in 1972 to prevent sex discrimination in education, colleges and universities had an obligation to prevent and respond to sexual violence and harassment. “Once a school knows or reasonably should know of possible sexual violence, it must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred,” the letter from the Office of Civil Rights warned.

The government also instructed schools to adopt a new standard for determining the outcome of a sexual-harassment or violence case. At the time, many schools used the standard of “clear and convincing” evidence, meaning that the adjudicators (usually a panel of administrators or faculty) believed that it was substantially more likely than not, or roughly 75 percent likely, that the accused had committed the offense. The letter from the civil rights office demanded that schools switch to a lower standard of proof, a “preponderance” of evidence, meaning that it was more likely than not — above 50.01 percent — that the offense was committed. The office noted that preponderance is the standard that courts use to decide civil suits for sexual harassment. A few schools, including Princeton and Harvard, initially refused the new standard and then found themselves under investigation for suspected Title IX violations.[...]

In the last few months, Stanford and other schools have felt the ground shift beneath them once again. Some critics are now charging that universities are overcompensating for past mistreatment of victims. Even as they’re attacked for giving victims short shrift, schools are also being denounced for inadequately protecting the rights of the accused. In October, 28 members of the Harvard law-school faculty wrote a letter, published in The Boston Globe, deploring the procedures the university adopted to follow the mandate from the Office of Civil Rights for lacking “the most basic elements of fairness and due process” and being “overwhelmingly stacked against the accused.” Around the country, about three dozen men are suing universities over findings or punishments for sexual infractions. In a short span of time, a well-intentioned effort to right a seemingly obvious wrong has fed additional claims of injustice.[...]

In November, after I contacted Lonsdale, his lawyers submitted to Stanford hundreds of pages of his email correspondence with Clougherty and her mother that they hadn’t previously provided. Stanford has not decided whether to consider this evidence, along with an eight-page sworn statement Lonsdale gave the university from an unexpected source: Clougherty’s friend Jane.

In the months after Jane helped Clougherty break up with Lonsdale, she says that she watched with increasing unease as Clougherty’s accusations mounted, from emotional abuse to rape. “In March 2014, she texted me that she considered herself a ‘sex slave’ during her relationship with Joe,” Jane wrote in her statement. “This is far, far beyond anything that she ever said about the relationship when it was happening or for a long time afterward. It also made no sense in light of her clear enthusiasm about the relationship.”[...]

In response to Clougherty’s lawsuit, Lonsdale mounted a swift counterattack, calling it “a vengeful, personal attack by a disturbed former girlfriend” in an email to friends and associates. He also said that Stanford’s investigation was “a Kafka-esque nightmare.” He linked to Clougherty’s emails, posting them on a website his team created overnight, highlighting the most affectionate and admiring passages and arguing that she was unstable. Lonsdale also sued Clougherty for defamation. (In the wake of the lawsuits, Formation 8 has been criticized in the press for not disclosing that Lonsdale was banned from Stanford.) He blamed himself only for being naïve. [...]

At the same time, the role the government has cast universities in is not a natural one. They are not the police. Yet they are asked to grapple with criminal accusations even when the events in question are receding into the past and are deeply difficult to deconstruct. And they are self-interested in a way that courts are not, with a different need: to protect their reputation.

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