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Soccer star's parents sue Stanford University after her death

Katie Meyer's family alleges failures to safeguard their daughter's well-being

The parents of a Stanford University women's soccer star who died by suicide earlier this year after learning she faced disciplinary action filed a lawsuit against the university and some of its top administrators last week. 

Katie Meyer. Courtesy Stanford Athletics.

The Nov. 23 lawsuit, which was entered into Santa Clara County Superior Court on behalf of Steven and Gina Meyer, parents of soccer player Katie Meyer, accused the university and officials of wrongful death, negligence, breach of contract, gender discrimination and negligent infliction of emotional distress, in addition to other allegations.

It names as defendants Stanford University, the board of trustees, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Associate Dean for Student Support Lisa Caldera, Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Community Standards Tiffany Gabrielson, Assistant Dean of Students Alyce Haley, Vice Provost Susie Brubaker-Cole and General Counsel Debra Zumwalt.

Meyer, 22, died by suicide within hours of receiving by email a five-page memo from the Office of Community Standards (OCS) on Feb. 28, informing her that a disciplinary hearing would move forward regarding an incident in which she spilled coffee on a football player who had allegedly assaulted her teammate. Meyer was riding her bicycle on campus on Aug. 28, 2021, when, according to her, she accidentally spilled her hot coffee on the football player.

The football player earlier had been accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old female Stanford soccer team player on Aug. 20, 2021, and a formal complaint against him had been filed with the university the next day. Meyer was captain of the soccer team.

The lawsuit claims Stanford didn't treat the male football player accused of sexual assault with the same level of scrutiny and disciplinary action as it leveled at Meyer. Stanford administrators chose not to prosecute the football player, claiming a case of "he said, she said," according to the lawsuit.

The football player was not disciplined by his coach nor by anyone else for his alleged breach of conduct; yet while Stanford had insufficient evidence to formally charge Meyer, it did so in a punitive act of gender discrimination, the lawsuit claims.

On Monday, Stanford said in a statement that it had not yet seen the formal complaint. The university is aware of some of the allegations, which it said are "false and misleading."

"The allegation that Stanford failed to address a claim that a football player kissed one of Katie's soccer teammates without her permission is inaccurate. In fact, it is the university that initially reported this claim to Stanford's Title IX office and the police. However, the Title IX office did not pursue the matter since the criteria for moving forward with an investigation were not met," the university said in a statement.

The lawsuit also claims Stanford engaged in an overzealous pursuit of Meyer. The football player didn't file a complaint against Meyer, but Caldera, associate dean for student support, did after she learned of the incident. The football player indicated throughout the disciplinary process that he would like to "make amends" and "did not want any punishment that impacts her life," according to the lawsuit.

Meyer had much at stake.

She was a candidate for the United States women's national soccer team and was awaiting acceptance into Stanford Law School, the lawsuit noted. In her own words, Meyer worried that the investigation would derail her ambitions to enter the law school and to even receive her undergraduate diploma. The disciplinary action could result in her expulsion from Stanford just months before her graduation.

As a result of mental distress from the investigation, Meyer sought care at the university's Sport Psychology Clinic in November 2021. She also reported to a psychiatrist that she was experiencing increased depression symptoms and suicidal thoughts. She was prescribed medication, according to the lawsuit.

"I have been stressed out for months, had to check the OCS (Office of Community Standards) box on my graduate program application, and have been terrified that an accident will destroy my future. I'm not sure how far this case will go, but I have been so scared for months that my clumsiness will ruin my chances of leaving Stanford on a good note," she wrote in her formal letter to Stanford responding to the investigation.

Meyer also claimed that female and male athletes are held to different standards.

"While he (the male football player) may think male athletes are untouchable, female athletes know that one mistake can ruin everything. My whole life I've been terrified to make any mistakes. No alcohol, no speeding tickets, no A- marks on my report cards. Everything had to be perfect to get in and stay at Stanford. I suffer from anxiety and perfectionism, as so many female athletes do. We know all too well that in professional settings women have everything to lose and have to work twice as hard to prove that they are qualified and professional, and any mistake is magnified, any attitude of assertiveness is demonized. I never take anything for granted. Why would I risk it all on a random Saturday afternoon at a dining hall I wasn't even supposed to be at? I have given everything to this school and the people here. I love Stanford. The last thing I would want to do is jeopardize my future here as a senior applying to grad programs. I wish he knew this," she said.

Meyer didn't hear from university officials from mid-November 2021 to Feb. 25, and her mood had lifted, family members said, according to the lawsuit. During that time she had been selected by Stanford to be a Mayfield fellow, a Defense Innovation Scholar and one of four Stanford students to give a TEDx presentation. She thought that perhaps the investigation was behind her.

Early on Feb. 28, prior to receiving the letter of charges from the Office of Community Standards, Meyer was planning her spring break; booking air fare; planning a birthday party for the next night; designing a class she intended to teach; attending her own classes and soccer practice; meeting with friends and talking with her mother and sisters on FaceTime.

At 7 p.m., she received the email informing her the university had "sufficient evidence" to pursue a hearing for a "Violation of the Fundamental Standard by spilling coffee on another student."

It was the last day for the university to take action before the right to proceed/statute of limitations would expire under Stanford policies, the lawsuit said.

Stanford had known of Meyer's previous mental distress, according to the lawsuit. Yet, at the time she received the letter, the Office of Community Standards and Stanford's Counseling and Psychological Services were closed.

"Stanford employees made no effort whatsoever to check on Katie's well-being, either by a simple phone call or in-person welfare check," the lawsuit said.

Sometime that night or early on March 1, Meyer died.

Stanford University refuted the lawsuit's claims. In its statement the university said the allegation that the Office of Community Standards didn't communicate with Meyer prior to Feb. 28 is incorrect.

"Several days earlier, the head of OCS had informed Katie that a decision would be made by February 28 whether to proceed to a hearing. She gave Katie until that date to provide any further information for consideration. Katie provided no information, and OCS informed her on the evening of February 28 that the matter would move to a hearing," the university said.

In that correspondence, Meyer was "explicitly told that this was not a determination that she did anything wrong," and the Office of Community Standards offered to meet with her to discuss the matter if she wished. She also was given a number to call for immediate support and was told that the resource was available to her 24/7, according to Stanford.

"Shortly after receiving that email, Katie wrote OCS staff and received a reply within the hour. Katie asked for a meeting to discuss the matter, was offered several available times, and chose one three days later despite the availability of an earlier appointment," the university said.

The lawsuit didn't claim that Meyer only heard from Stanford's Office of Community Standards on Feb. 28, however. It noted that Gabrielson, who also serves as associate dean of students, informed Meyer of added case documents in an online folder and that Gabrielson would "soon be making a formal charging decision in this matter." The email also requested that Meyer provide any further exonerating evidence in her case by Feb. 28.

"Katie was expected by OCS to provide exonerating evidence in her case within three days. However, she was not allowed to communicate with witnesses or parties," the lawsuit noted.

Stanford said the Office of Community Standards pursued the review because it received a complaint regarding alleged behavior by Meyer that resulted in physical injury. It didn't describe the nature of the injury.

In an email to the Office of Community Standards, however, Meyer questioned the football player's claim that he lost 15 pounds and was unable to sleep after the incident, according to the lawsuit.

"Could he have lost weight and not been able to sleep because of his guilt about assaulting a 17 year old?" she wrote.

Stanford also noted in a letter that the injured student said his teammates spoke to Meyer. According to the football player, she subsequently "indicated to his teammates that the incident was intentional."

Yet, the investigator seemed to contradict the male student's statement: "I spoke with two of the teammates who he identified … They both told me that as far as they know, you have consistently indicated the incident was an accident," the lawsuit quoted.

Stanford, in its statement, defended its decision to charge Meyer.

"After extensive fact finding and the opportunity for both sides to provide information, it was found that the high threshold was met for the matter to proceed to a hearing. However, it is important to emphasize that we are committed to supporting students through the student judicial process under OCS, and we did so in this case. In particular, the university offered Katie an adviser to work with her throughout the process and told her she could have a support person of her choosing with her in any meeting or conversation with OCS," the university said.

The lawsuit, however, claims that Stanford has a history of allegations of student-rights violations stretching back to at least 2013. The accusations were first brought to light by the Student Justice Project, a coalition of Stanford University students, their parents, and alumni with the goal of educating the Stanford community about violations of student rights,

It was further noted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's 2019-2020 report, which evaluated fundamental fairness of disciplinary proceedings in 53 colleges and universities across the country. The Foundation report found, among other things, that Stanford's presumption of innocence was "limited," the lawsuit noted.

The university knew that its Office of Community Standards process was "overly punitive," "not educational" and causing harm to its students, after findings in April 2021 released by its own evaluation committee, the Committee of 12 (formerly C10), yet the university did nothing to rectify the issues, the lawsuit claims.

"Stanford employees used the OCS process selectively on Katie Meyer as a form of institutional bullying," the lawsuit claims. The university failed to take into account the mental health of its students and in particular its student athletes, according to the suit.

"It discriminatorily treated Katie Meyer differently and far more punitively than it treated others for spilling coffee, including the football player accused of sexual assault despite the same types of evidence for each incident," the lawsuit said.

"Had Stanford and its employees acted with reasonable care and with any sense of humanity, Katie would be alive and here with us today."

In response to the suit, Stanford said: "The Stanford community continues to grieve Katie's tragic death and we sympathize with her family for the unimaginable pain that Katie's passing has caused them. However, we strongly disagree with any assertion that the university is responsible for her death."

The university "will address any other misrepresentations or inaccuracies that are found in the filed complaint once it has received a copy. We plan to fully defend the university and named defendants against these allegations."

In a statement released after filing the lawsuit, Meyer's parents said: "Katie Meyer absolutely loved being a student-athlete at Stanford University. We are deeply troubled and disappointed with what we have learned since her passing and have no choice but to move forward with litigation to achieve justice for Katie and protect future students. In addition, we are working to seek systemic changes to improve the safety and support of the Stanford students currently on campus, and those enrolled in the future throdugh our foundation, Katie's Save."

Help is available

Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 988, the mental health crisis hotline, to speak with a crisis counselor. In Santa Clara County, interpretation is available in 200 languages. Spanish speakers can also call 888-628-9454.

People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting RENEW to 741741.

Read more: How to help those in crisis


About the Author: Sue Dremann

Sue Dremann is a veteran journalist who joined the Palo Alto Weekly in 2001. She is a breaking news and general assignment reporter who also covers the regional environmental, health and crime beats.
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