After Leah Sharon Francis was raped, she felt like no one was listening to her.
It’s only now — six months later — that people are starting to pay attention.
The 21-year-old Stanford senior, who was born and raised in Juneau and was attacked by her ex-boyfriend, a fellow Stanford student, off-campus in Juneau during winter break, sparked a firestorm of national media attention this week when she penned an email criticizing the university’s handling of her rape case. The email instantly galvanized support from the student body and faculty and caused outrage online when the email went viral.
The 2010 Juneau-Douglas High School grad, who has since given interviews to Buzzfeed, the LA Times, the New York Times and the Huffington Post as well as California media outlets, said the response is just what she wanted.
“This is exactly what I was going for,” she told the Empire in a phone interview on Friday afternoon. “We just need to shed light on the way Stanford has been mishandling sexual violence on campus. I’ve been waiting to come out about this for five months because I knew from the very beginning of this process that it was very unlikely that my assailant would be sanctioned in any way that reflected the magnitude of the crime.”
About 500 Stanford students and faculty stood with Francis at a rally on campus at noon on Thursday, protesting the sanctioning decision made by Stanford’s Alternate Review Process, which is in place to discipline students accused of serious misconduct, including sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and sexual assault.
The ARP found that Francis’ assailant was responsible for sexually assaulting her, and last month suspended him from the school for five quarters, effective the 2014 summer quarter. That allows him to finish his classes this year, walk at graduation, and also to return to Stanford, if he wishes, for graduate school. The board also required him to complete 40 hours of community service and a sexual assault awareness program.
Francis appealed the decision this week and is demanding that her attacker be expelled from the school. She believes sexual assault should be grounds for automatic expulsion at Stanford, as it is at Dartmouth and Duke, for instance.
“Stanford’s behind the times,” she told the Empire. “They need to catch up.”
She’s not the only one who thinks so. Throngs of supporters online expressed outrage at the decision, and sent messages of solidarity to Francis on Twitter and Facebook under the hashtag #StandWithLeah.
“Proud to #StandWithLeah bc she spoke up when too many women suffer in silence. @Stanford, lets protect the victim, not the perpetrator,” tweeted one Stanford 2013 graduate under the username Camillb.
“I #StandWithLeah because rapists do not deserve a Stanford degree,” read one sign seen at Thursday’s rally, according to a tweet sent by Justine Waldman, a reporter for KRON4-News in San Francisco.
Francis said she’s been overwhelmed by the support, especially from other rape survivors who also told their story at the rally.
“I felt totally humbled at the rally,” Francis said, describing it as “more of a healing process than anything” she’s been through lately.
She added, “Every single survivor I talked to has made me realize more and more that we just need to stand together and change this culture.”
The ARP process also dragged out over the course of five months, spanning two quarters of school. She said it was a really damaging process, and on top of the post-tramatic stress she was experiencing, it put her behind in school.
“It made me really depressed (to be) constantly writing statements and retelling over and over, and being questioned,” she said, adding, “No one wants to go through the process, and only 13 people ever have at Stanford because it’s really damaging for victims. And you really just don’t receive justice at the end of it.”
She noted that she has seen her rapist on campus several times since the January 1 attack, causing her to relive the attack over and over again.
“Every time I saw him, my heart rate just went through the roof,” she said. “I was panicked, I felt afraid. I really just can’t be around him. It’s too much for me. It’s terrifying.”
She said he even broke his no-contact order, which the ARP imposed as they were conducting their investigation. Another man, whom she did not know, also burst into her room and yelled at her about the attack.
“He said, ‘Don’t you think he would have been punished if he’d actually done it?!’, and then he lunged at me and left,” Francis said. “It was extremely frightening for me.”
Stanford is investigating that contact, and the man is still unidentified, the Huffington Post reported.
Francis was raped on Jan. 1, 2014, by a man she previously dated in Juneau and during her first two years at Stanford, according to Slate Magazine, a national online magazine that conducted an interview with Francis. She broke up with him in the winter of her sophomore year and hadn’t seen him much since, Slate reported.
Francis told the Empire that the attack took place in the basement at his parents house in Juneau — “my hometown, the place that I love,” she said.
“My assailant was a person who I knew, a person who I trusted at the time, and when the assault began, I was passed out drunk and completely unconscious,” she told the Empire. “And I awoke to find the assault happening. I was terrified, I was shocked and I was unable to defend myself.”
A few days later, she had a panic attack and her friend brought her to a hospital in California. She decided to report the rape to the local police there and also to Stanford so she could go through the judicial affairs process.
The Palo Alto Police Department did not have jurisdiction over the case since the crime occurred in Juneau, and they passed it on to the Juneau Police Department. JPD did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment on Friday.
Charges have not yet been brought, Juneau District Attorney James Scott told the Empire. He said the case is still being reviewed by his office.
“I can only say her case is currently under thorough review,” Scott wrote in an email to the Empire. “When that status changes, she’ll be the first to know.”
Francis said she isn’t “really holding my breath” about the criminal case, saying most rape cases don’t go to trial or see the light of day.
Francis is not naming her assailant.
“I have no desire to name him because it really doesn’t matter who it is,” she said. “Drawing attention to him is really not what I want to do. What I want to do is be someone who stands up for survivors of sexual assault because we live in a culture that blames victims. I want to change things.”
There’s another reason, too. Slate reported that Stanford told Francis she could not publicize the name of the male student she accused of rape without facing repercussions herself.
“On May 9, Francis got an email from Stanford’s Dean for Student Life telling her that if she publicized the name of the student she accused, and the finding of responsibility through the Alternative Review Process, ‘that would constitute a breach of the confidentiality expectation’ Stanford has, and the male student could file a complaint against her with the school,” Slate editor Emily Bazelon wrote in an article called “Suspension Isn’t Enough: Universities are letting students off way to easy for sexual assault.” “Stanford’s policy is that students are allowed to talk about cases with parents, confidantes, supporters like Dauber, counselors, and local law enforcement, but are otherwise expected to keep the experience confidential. The idea is to shield both sides from potential damage (legal, psychological) if they disclose private information about each other. But Francis said she felt like the university was threatening her. Stanford also tells students that documents generated through the disciplinary process, such as student witness statements, should not be released publicly.”
Bazelon goes on to say that after Francis raised objections to the confidential policy, the dean responded to Francis via email saying it wasn’t her intention to silence her but rather to give advice.
The male student raised a defense during the ARP investigation, Bazelon reported.
“Francis’ assailant put on a defense,” she wrote. “I don’t have the documents he prepared for the case but according to Francis’ summary of his statements in her appeal, which she put together to respond to his arguments— the student she says raped her told the ARP reviewers that he was asleep during the sex, “completely oblivious to the situation,” but also was “not forceful” and perceived “indications” of consent. He raised the idea that he suffered from “sexsomnia,” a supposed sleep disorder, in which people express uncontrolled sexual aggression while sleeping. A handful of rape defendants have tried to raise this defense in court in the United States, but it hasn’t worked. The Stanford reviewers didn’t buy it, either.”
After Francis was raped, she felt like no one was listening to her.
Her friend had the idea to place red masking tape over the mouths of statues on campus — as a small but defiant act.
The visually powerful symbol of the red tape, a movement which originated at Columbia University for students fighting sexual violence and rape culture, according to NoRedTapeCU on Twitter, is now catching on at Stanford.
Pictures of the red-masked statues began popping up on Facebook on Thursday and Friday, and Francis said graduating students will be placing strips of red tape on their graduation caps.
Francis said she hopes it will put pressure on the university to reform policies that “are broken and to get help for survivors now.”
She said she feels lucky to have such support, and that she’s finally being heard.
“I just think we need to have a conversation nationally about it,” she said, “and I want it to start now.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.