Katie Meyer was a few months away from graduating from Stanford University when the email landed in her inbox. The captain of the school’s soccer team, who had a 3.84 GPA and law school aspirations, would face a disciplinary hearing for allegedly spilling coffee on a football player accused of sexually assaulting one of her teammates.
Sent on the evening of Feb. 28, the message said a hold was being placed on her degree and she could be removed from the university, according to court documents. Meyer, 22, quickly wrote back that she was “shocked and distraught.”
The soccer star who had helped lead the team to a national championship in 2019 was found unresponsive in her dorm room hours later, in what investigators ruled a suicide. The email was still open on her computer.
Meyer’s parents have now filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Stanford, alleging that the university had acted “negligently and recklessly” in its handling of the disciplinary case.
“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,” said the complaint, filed last week in Santa Clara County Superior Court. “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.”
Help for those in crisis
The lawsuit comes as college students report suffering higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. At least nine Stanford students have died by suicide since 2019, the complaint said. It argued that the prestigious university’s high-achieving students have perfectionist tendencies that result in heightened pressure and stress.
In response to news of the lawsuit, Stanford released a statement defending its actions and denying the allegations, saying they were “false and misleading.”
“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,” the statement said. “However, we strongly disagree with any assertion that the university is responsible for her death.”
According to the complaint, the incident that triggered the disciplinary process happened in August 2021, when Meyer, while riding her bike, spilled coffee on a football player accused of assaulting a 17-year-old soccer player. Meyer said the spill was an accident. But the lawsuit argued that even if it was believed to be intentional, Stanford should have taken into consideration that Meyer “was standing up for the victim (and teammate) of a sexual assault” and that it was “minor in nature.”
The football player, who was not identified and according to the lawsuit did not face disciplinary charges, allegedly did not feel the incident warranted a complaint with the university. But the dean of residential education reported the incident to Stanford’s Office of Community Standards, which began investigating. The university, in its statement, said the complaint against Meyer alleged behavior “that resulted in a physical injury” and that launching a review was the practice of the office. It also said that Stanford reported a claim about a football player kissing a soccer player without consent to the Title IX office but “the criteria for moving forward with an investigation were not met.”
Meyer met with an administrator about the coffee complaint in late September. She said she was distressed about the disciplinary process looming over her because she was a senior hoping to gain admission to Stanford’s law school and did not want to be derailed. She had never been in trouble. Two months later, she provided a formal statement about the coffee spill to the Office of Community Standards. She again mentioned fears about her future, saying she had been “stressed out for months” and “terrified that an accident will destroy my future.”
“My whole life I’ve been terrified to make any mistakes,” she wrote. “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.”
When months passed without contact from the Office of Community Standards, Meyer began to believe the process was over — especially because she had been selected for the university’s Mayfield Fellows Program.
Then, on Feb. 25, a dean from the office sent her an email saying a series of documents had been added to her case and a charging decision would come soon. The email asked that she provide additional exonerating evidence by Feb. 28. It wasn’t clear whether Meyer read the message, the lawsuit said, noting that she was a residential assistant, full-time student and Division I athlete juggling a slew of responsibilities.
She spent Feb. 28 going to classes, soccer practice and a Mayfield Fellows event. She FaceTimed with her mom and sisters that evening about spring break plans and then emailed her mom about a flight she had booked.
The email from the Office of Community Standards, which said an administrator had “determined that the charging standard in this matter is met,” arrived around 7 p.m. At six months past the date of the coffee incident, it was the last day Stanford could take action on the matter before the statute of limitations expired under university policy.
“Katie had managed challenges in the past, however, the receipt of the email from the OCS office that informed her that she was being charged with a violation of the Fundamental Standard, and that her degree was on hold and that she was facing removal from the university, led her to believe that all of her 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 lawsuit said.
Computer forensics showed Meyer “frantically toggled back and forth between the letter and the attachments and searching how to defend a disciplinary complaint,” it continued.
Her body was found the next day. The suit called her death an “impulsive suicide.”
Stanford, in its statement, said it decided to move forward with the disciplinary charge and hold a hearing “after extensive factfinding and the opportunity for both sides to provide information.” Administrators “are committed to supporting students through the student judicial process under OCS, and we did so in this case,” the statement said, noting that Meyer was offered an adviser and told she could have a support person in any conversations with the office. She was also given a phone number she could call for support 24 hours a day.
The lawsuit, however, noted that a university committee concluded last year that the disciplinary process is “overly punitive” and drags out too long. It argued that “the actions that led to the death of Katie Meyer began and ended with Stanford University.” Meyer’s parents, Steven and Gina Meyer, have since started an organization aimed at providing support to students dealing with challenging circumstances.
The group, “Katie’s Save,” is meant to carry on their daughter’s dreams of doing “big things.” Meyer, who majored in international relations and hoped to work in public service, spoke of wanting to leave an impact. The lawsuit makes mention of a quote she gave to a university publication in November 2021.
“There will be a day when all Stanford athletes hang up their cleats and ask themselves, ‘What is next?’ ” Meyer said. “I want to make the world a better place and we need a few more optimists who believe they can be that change.”