STANFORD -- A Stanford sexual assault victim, furious that her assailant will be allowed to graduate this month, is demanding tougher sanctions and other changes in university policy.
"Stanford did not expel the man who raped me," Stanford senior Leah Francis wrote in an open letter that circulated rapidly online this week.
On Thursday, hundreds of men and women converged on White Memorial Plaza to show their support for Francis and call for swifter resolution, stiffer penalties and more support for victims.
Carrying signs that stated "Support survivors," "Punish rapists" and "No one should have to live in fear," they marched to the office of the vice provost of student affairs, Greg Boardman, who is considering Francis' request, asking him to "get on board."
"This is a historic moment when there is an unprecedented movement for change," said Benjy Mercer-Golden, a junior who directs the student government's new Task Force on Sexual Assault and Relationship Abuse. "We think where Stanford goes, other universities will follow."
Francis' story has thrust Stanford into a national debate over sexual assault complaints involving students and how those found to be responsible by their campuses should be punished. But the debate also is bringing a rising counter demand -- and lawsuits -- for more protection of the rights of students accused of assault.
In January, Francis, a senior majoring in English, reported she was raped while away from campus during winter break by a classmate she knew. Five months later, after a hearing process she described as nightmarish and draining, a Stanford panel found the young man responsible for sexual assault, sexual misconduct and violating the Stanford code of conduct, according to university documents Francis provided. (A police investigation in their hometown remains open, and no charges have been filed, she said.
Francis said she was appalled to learn his suspension would not begin until after his June 15 graduation and that he would be able to return to Stanford for graduate school in 2015.
The trauma of the attack and the intensive hearing process derailed her own plans to graduate with her class, she said.
The accused student is appealing the finding, and Francis is appealing the man's punishment. Neither Francis nor the school is permitted to name her assailant.
Francis' stand helped to mobilize students around a widespread problem that needs far more attention, said Stanford junior Keenan Molner, who attended Thursday's rally. Everyone on campus knows it's a problem, he said, but it's unusual "to see someone take a stand and put a face to the issue."
Across the country, campus sexual assault victims are demanding that their universities do more to prevent such attacks and to get assailants off campus. While some -- including Francis -- report their assaults to law enforcement, others turn exclusively to their universities for justice, support and protection, often to avoid the publicity of a criminal case.
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education and President Barack Obama upped the pressure by naming 55 colleges under investigation for their policies, a list that includes prominent schools such as UC Berkeley, Harvard and Dartmouth.
Such scrutiny has led more colleges, including Duke and Dartmouth, to more harshly penalize campus sex offenders. Dartmouth now mandates expulsion for the most egregious offenses; last year, Duke made expulsion the starting point for those it finds responsible for sexual assault -- a policy Stanford is considering.
"We look forward to discussing this possibility further with students and others," the Stanford administration said in a statement issued Wednesday.
But, highlighting the challenge for universities, some of the accused are striking back, saying their colleges' student-conduct investigations deprived them of their rights. Former students at Duke and Occidental College sued the colleges, claiming that the universities railroaded them.
Federal law requires colleges to investigate student and employee sexual assaults. The U.S. Department of Education expects colleges to find students responsible for sexual assault if it's more likely than not they committed the act, rather than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard of criminal courts.
"Colleges do need to act to protect students," said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is aiding an accused student who sued Occidental. "But I think we're seeing over and over again that they're really not competent to determine the guilt or innocence of students when it comes to felony crimes like this."
If a student is guilty of a sexual assault, Shibley said, "the sanction of expulsion is laughably insufficient."
It likely will be 10 years -- after lawsuits have made their way through the courts -- before colleges know where to draw the line between the rights of the accused and the accuser, said Dan King, president of American Association of University Administrators.
Larry Moneta, Duke University's vice president for student affairs, had this advice to those grappling with sexual assault sanctions: "If you believe you have to raise the bar in accountability, do it. But if you do it, do it right."
Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.