Suicide on the Campus: A Case Against Stanford University

[TW: suicide] The parents of Stanford University soccer captain and goalkeeper Katie Meyer filed a lawsuit against the college on November 23 arguing that its reckless actions and inactions caused Meyer’s death by suicide last February.

The lawsuit brought by Steven and Gina Meyer asserts that Stanford administration employees engaged in institutional bullying and a punitive act of gender discrimination in Stanford’s treatment of their daughter preceding her death on February 28.

Stanford captain and goalie Katie Meyer

In its handling of a disciplinary case against Meyer, the lawsuit alleges, Stanford relied on a university judicial system that it knew to be seriously flawed, overly punitive, and harmful to students; selectively proceeded with the case without sufficient evidence; failed to provide Meyer with appropriate mental health support despite knowing of her despair over the case; and in 17 different actions or inactions breached the duty of care the university owes to its students.

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial, seeking injunctive relief and damages for wrongful death and for negligent as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Stanford officials denied that the university was responsible for Meyer’s suicide, and said that the family’s lawsuit “contains allegations that are false and misleading.”

Case Against Katie Meyer

According to the lawsuit filed in the Superior Court of California in Santa Clara County, on the evening of Meyer’s death Stanford’s Office of Community Standards (OCS) had “negligently and recklessly” notified Meyer via email with a “formal written notice that you are charged” with a conduct violation for allegedly “spilling coffee on another student.”

The five-page, single-spaced letter from Tiffany Gabrielson, Associate Dean and OCS head, contained threatening language regarding sanctions and potential ‘removal from the university,’” the lawsuit says.

The formal disciplinary charge letter stated that Meyer’s diploma was being placed on hold, just three months from her graduation date, threatening her status as a Stanford student, captain and member of the women’s soccer team, residential advisor, Mayfield Fellow, Defense Innovative Scholar, and her hope to attend Stanford Law School, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit described Meyer, 22, from Newbury Park, California, as a high academic achiever with a 3.84 Grade Point Average, an ambassador for Just Women’s Sports, the creator of the podcast “Be the Mentality” produced by a subsidiary of Facebook, an upcoming speaker of a TedX Talk, a candidate for the U.S. women’s soccer team, “and, above all, [a] loving and loyal daughter, sister, friend, teammate, and student.”

The lawsuit says that Stanford began recruiting Meyer after her freshman year of high school. In 2020 she was voted captain by her Stanford women’s soccer teammates; in 2019, she had led  them to the College Cup national championship, and was awarded MVP in the final against North Carolina after her save in a penalty kick shootout decided the outcome.

Stanford repeatedly used Meyer’s image and likeness to promote the university, sports programs, and civic pride including in its recruitment of other women’s soccer players, the lawsuit says.

The disciplinary charge stemmed from an incident six months earlier in August 2021 where Meyer was alleged to have spilled coffee on a male Stanford football player “who allegedly sexually assaulted a minor female soccer player on the team in which Katie served as a captain,” according to the lawsuit. Meyer consistently contended that the coffee spill was accidental, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says that Stanford employees sent the formal disciplinary charge letter via email on February 28 after 7 p.m., after normal working hours, literally on the last day within the six-month period following an incident that is allowed for bringing conduct charges.

Another in an occasional series of articles about student mental health. For more information, go to The Sophie Fund’s Student Mental Health Page

The lawsuit says that Meyer immediately responded to the email expressing how “shocked and distraught” she was over being charged and threatened with removal from the university. The lawsuit asserts that the letter and covering email both “contained language assuming guilt,” and that it is reasonable that the threatening language led Meyer to believe that was the case. Meyer had come to feel that the case was no longer being pursued because OCS had not contacted her for more than three months, since November 21, the lawsuit says.

Yet, the lawsuit contends, Stanford employees failed to respond to her expression of distress and check on her well-being, rather offering a meeting days later. They did not do so, the lawsuit adds, despite Meyer having also expressed feelings of terror and anxiety in her most recent previous communication to OCS, three months earlier.

“Stanford’s after-hours disciplinary charge, and the reckless nature and manner of submission to Katie, caused Katie to suffer an acute stress reaction that impulsively led to her suicide,” the lawsuit alleges.

Up until receiving the email and formal charging letter on February 28, the lawsuit says, Meyer had no prior history of mental illness and was excitedly planning her future. “Katie’s suicide was completed without planning and solely in response to the shocking and deeply distressing information she received from Stanford while alone in her room without any support or resources,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says that the email and letter led Meyer “to believe that all of her future plans were being upended, making all of her hard work for naught, and leaving her in an acute emotional episode with a loss of purpose, a sense of embarrassment and humiliation, and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.” The OSC charging letter was on Meyer’s computer screen at the time of her death, the lawsuit says.

“From the onset, there was no reasonable basis, nor sufficient evidence, for Stanford to bring such harsh and aggressive disciplinary charges for purported ‘spilled coffee,’ and the threats levied against Katie by Stanford employees were unwarranted, overly punitive, without due care and reckless. In short, Stanford employees used the OCS process selectively on Katie Meyer as a form of institutional bullying,” the lawsuit asserts.

One of the lawsuit’s counts further accuses Stanford of negligent infliction of emotional distress on Meyer’s parents, for failing to provide them with her student records and “sending threatening emails to Steve and Gina Meyer pertaining to their viewing of Katie’s documents on her computer despite the fact that the documents became the property of Steve and Gina Meyer following Katie’s death.”

Duty of Care

The defendants’ actions and failures to act are particularly egregious, the lawsuit says, considering that they knew their student disciplinary process was too punitive, that Stanford had a long history of extensive suicides and suicidal attempts of its students, and that the university provided inadequate mental health support for its students and in particular its student athletes.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants had been on notice that Stanford’s disciplinary process was punitive and inflicting inappropriate, unnecessary distress on its students. Yet, it says, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and other senior Stanford administrators “did nothing to rectify it, breaching the standard of care and duty owed to Katie and other students.”

The lawsuit cites three reviews of Stanford’s judicial process dating back to 2011, which variously found it to be “overly punitive,” known for bullying and intimidation, and lacking full compliance with due process rights such as presumption of innocence, reasonable time frames for adjudication, and legal representation.

The lawsuit asserts that Stanford established a duty of care to its students through many representations to new students and their families, including an admissions webpage that states: “Parents can be assured that their students are cared for during their freshman year and throughout their Stanford career.”

The lawsuit cites a “Welcome to Stanford” speech by President Tessier-Lavigne at an opening convocation in 2018, when Meyer was a first-year student, where he said: “To all of the parents and family members who are here to wish you well as you embark on this journey, I thank you for entrusting your loved ones to us. I want to assure you that we will support and care for them as they begin taking those first steps toward the future.”

Mental Health Support

Despite its duty of care to its students, the lawsuit alleges, Stanford ignored Meyer’s documented representations about anxiety, depression, and suicide that correlated with the OCS disciplinary process.

In her formal statement on the case to Stanford in November 2021, Meyer recounted the stress she was experiencing over the disciplinary process and was terrified such incidents “will destroy my future,” the lawsuit says.

Although stating that Meyer had no prior history of mental illness before receiving the formal charge letter on February 28, the lawsuit says that she had previously documented her increased symptoms with Stanford mental health professionals. Three months earlier, right after submitting her formal statement in November, the lawsuit says, Meyer met separately with a Stanford psychiatrist and psychologist; and reported, respectively, “increased depression symptoms associated with perceived failure and endorsed suicidal ideations” and “worsening anxiety and mood and increased depression.”

The lawsuit alleges that Stanford’s “long history of failing to appropriately handle mental health concerns and to adopt best practices for the safety of its students” contributed to Meyer’s death. It says that at least seven other Stanford students had died by suicide since January 2019.

“The mental health epidemic at Stanford has been ongoing for years,” the lawsuits asserts. “Yet in the face of so many students at Stanford with mental health needs, Stanford understaffs its counseling centers, resulting in students waiting months for much needed treatment.”

The lawsuit cites a 2018 class action lawsuit against Stanford for violating the rights of students with mental health disabilities.

The lawsuit, which was settled through confidential mediation without an admission of liability but with Stanford’s agreement to reforms, had cited Stanford’s “practice of treating students who experience mental health crises as liabilities: pressuring them into taking leaves of absence and requiring immediate withdrawal from all classes and housing, all without an individualized evaluation of reasonable accommodations.”

“Stanford’s negligent and reckless attitude towards Katie and the importance of student athletes’ mental health is indicative of the greater dismissive attitude toward mental health needs of its students on Stanford’s campus even today while students continue to suffer without proper assistance,” the lawsuit says.

Gender Discrimination?

The lawsuit says that the disciplinary complaint against Meyer was filed based on hearsay and outside university investigative procedures by Lisa Caldera, Associate Dean, Office of Residential Education, rather than by the football player himself. The lawsuit says the individual “indicated throughout the disciplinary process that he would like to ‘make amends’ and ‘did not want any punishment that impacts her life.’” The lawsuit contends that Stanford never offered Meyer “restorative justice options that would allow the parties to meet and apologize over the incident.”

Furthermore, the lawsuit says, Stanford selectively chose not to bring any disciplinary charges against the football player who allegedly sexually assaulted Meyer’s teammate. “Instead of pursuing the allegations of sexual assault against the football player, Stanford pursued claims against Katie for allegedly spilling coffee on him,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit claims that the university was required to dismiss the player from the football team under its own zero tolerance for sexual violence policies yet failed to initiate any meaningful disciplinary process against him. The lawsuit asserts that Stanford football coach David Shaw, who is not named in the case, had been a member of the NCAA Commission to Combat Campus Sexual Violence and touted to be a leading advocate of the Set The Expectation program aimed at working to end the culture of sexual assault and domestic violence among college and high school athletes.

Stanford’s Response

The lawsuit against Stanford University names the Stanford Board of Trustees and several administrators specifically:

Marc Tessier-Lavigne, President

Lisa Caldera, Associate Dean, Office of Residential Education

Tiffany Gabrielson. Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Community Standards

Alyce Haley, Assistant Dean of Students, Office of Community Standards

Susie Brubaker-Cole, Vice Provost for Student Affairs

Debra Zumwalt, General Counsel

“Defendants cannot escape the consequences of their actions,” the lawsuit concludes. “They must be held accountable, not only to satisfy the demands of justice, but just as importantly to discourage such flagrantly irresponsible actions and/or inactions (and the actions and/or inactions of others who Defendants control) from being perpetrated on vulnerable students like Katie Meyer and others in the future.”

An unsigned Stanford communication responding to the lawsuit posted November 25 and updated December 1 on the university’s website stated: “We strongly disagree with any assertion that the university is responsible for her death. We plan to fully defend the university and named defendants against the allegations in the complaint.”

The statement said that the university launched the conduct review as a matter of routine after receiving a complaint about Meyer’s alleged behavior that resulted in a physical injury. The review entailed extensive factfinding and the opportunity for “both sides” to provide information, it said. “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,” the statement said.

In the correspondence on the night of her death, the statement said, Meyer was explicitly told that the charge was “not a determination that she did anything wrong.” It said that when Meyer emailed OCS after receiving the email and letter, the office responded within an hour and offered to meet with her; and they mutually agreed on an appointment three days later. As for further support, the statement said Meyer was given a number to call for immediate support and was specifically told that this resource was available to her 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The statement said the university denied the allegation that OCS did not communicate with Katie prior to the night of her death February 28—although the lawsuit had said the lack of communication stretched from November 21 to February 25, not February 28, which the statement did not dispute.

The statement made no response to the lawsuit’s assertion that Stanford breached its duty of care to Meyer by failing to repair an institutional disciplinary process that administrators knew was  punitive and inflicted inappropriate, unnecessary distress on students.

Addressing the allegation that Stanford did not pursue discipline in a sexual assault claim against the male athlete in the coffee spilling incident, the statement said that the university reported the claim that “a football player kissed one of Katie’s soccer teammates without her permission” to Stanford’s Title IX office and to the police. But it said that the Title IX office “did not pursue the matter since the criteria for moving forward with an investigation were not met.”

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.