College backlash and a difficult balancing act on sex assault
|By Jeremy Roebuck and Susan Snyder, The Philadelphia Inquirer|
|McClatchy-Tribune Information Services|
He was expelled.
Those spare facts make up the little that the parties can agree upon in a lawsuit working its way through federal court in
The young man at its center -- an honors student and former high school class president identified in court filings only as
"To correct one wrong -- its past unresponsiveness to female complaints -- [
With universities across the country under pressure from victim advocates, government regulators and even the
And in a new wrinkle, many of those suing -- including former students at
Experts say the legal tactic is too new for them to determine whether it will stand up in court.
A federal judge in
A judge in
But the proliferation of these legal fights has sparked further debate on what part academia should play in policing a crime shrouded in conflicting accounts, often with no witnesses.
"We're constantly in a balancing act," said
"Some boards and panels still can't tell the difference between drunk sex and a policy violation," he wrote. "We are making Title IX plaintiffs out of these men."
Consider the case of
He sued the school in May, three months after a disciplinary board composed of one faculty member, one student, and one administrator concluded he had assaulted his ex-girlfriend sexually.
By all accounts, Villar and his accuser had dated for two years before the night of the alleged assault. Hours after they had sex, the couple dined at her parents' house and stayed to watch a movie. She invited him back the next day.
Only after Villar admitted to his girlfriend that he had cheated on her with another woman did she tell school authorities she had been raped, said his lawyer,
The disciplinary board took less than 45 minutes to find Villar guilty of sexual misconduct and expel him.
Under school policy, Spade was barred from aiding Villar at the hearing. Acting on his lawyer's advice, Villar chose not to participate.
"The accused can't really participate meaningfully at a hearing like that if he's under police investigation," Spade said.
But if Villar's suit seeks to make a stand on behalf of men accused of sexual assault on college campuses, his accuser's lawyers have responded with equal breadth and force.
"Villar's lawsuit suggests that during an internal administrative disciplinary process, he was entitled to the rights of a criminal defendant," wrote school lawyers
The university's very quarrel with that, Spade says, is exactly the problem.
Lack of access
Villar's complaints against the university's disciplinary process echo those voiced in several of the Title IX suits filed against schools such as
All cite a lack of access to lawyers and, in some cases, the chance to cross-examine their accusers.
Others question the makeup of disciplinary boards, which are frequently composed of some combination of administrators, faculty, and students, who rarely have backgrounds in sexual assault, investigative technique, or the law.
Many of the suits take issue with a 2011 mandate from the
Colleges now use a "preponderance of the evidence" standard in sexual-misconduct cases, meaning that an assault was more likely to have occurred than not. In contrast, the criminal justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt for a conviction.
But underlying the complaints common to each of the lawsuits, one question lingers: Given the potentially life-altering ramifications of a sexual-assault accusation, why have colleges taken on the responsibility of investigating in the first place?
"If universities are going to hear these cases and make conclusions about whether or not felony crimes occurred, they need to provide as much due process as possible," said
Obama task force
Assault victims can -- and often do -- report campus rapes to police. But for many, notifying college administrators of their assaults offers an alternative to the laborious and not always successful process of the criminal justice system.
Schools are not required to report rape accusations to police against a victim's wishes. But they must include any reports they receive to the federal government in annual crime statistics.
Within that framework, school administrators say they are doing their best in what has recently become an increasingly pressured environment.
In recent months,
Earlier this year,
In April, the
Few colleges have grappled as publicly with the issue as
A highly selective college of 1,500-plus students in
The college's student newspaper published a series of articles featuring women who said they felt revictimized by the college's failure to take their complaints seriously.
Students scrawled complaints about sexual assault in chalk around campus. And when those protests disappeared, activists accused administrators of attempting to hide the problem from prospective students and their families.
A formal Title IX complaint filed that spring by
It was in that environment that the student known in court filings as
Though his identity is known to the court, the man filed his suit against
His lawyer, Hamill, declined to identify her client or make him available for an interview, saying he hoped to avoid any further damage to his reputation. Hamill also declined to comment on the case.
Court filings, however, make clear the man's belief that
Less than two weeks after Brinn and Ferguson's highly publicized Title IX complaint went public,
It centered on two sexual encounters he had with a classmate in 2011. While neither involved intercourse, the two later had sex, which the woman said she had initiated.
When she reported him to
The first time around, the school investigated for two months -- interviewing both the accuser and the accused multiple times -- before closing the case in
When the school reopened the case that May -- six months after the woman came forward and two years after the alleged assaults occurred -- administrators seemed determined to make an example of him, Hamill contends in the suit.
At his disciplinary hearing, members of the board were overcome with emotion as the woman testified, Hamill said.
When it was her client's turn to address them, one member interrupted his presentation to ask about the alleged victim's welfare, according to the suit.
Doe's accuser declined, through an intermediary, to comment for this story.
Hamill contends that in handling the case,
"The clear inference to be drawn from the panel's extraordinary conduct . . . is that the panel had predetermined that [she] was the victim and John was the victimizer," Hamill wrote. "John was the whipping boy that
The college continues to examine its policies to ensure fairness to all involved, said
In the last 15 months, the school has done away with the setup that led to Doe's expulsion.
Instead, a retired state
Still, the man's lawsuit has picked up some unlikely support -- from Ferguson, whose Title IX complaint last year made her one of the campus' most outspoken victim advocates.
She said the school's past policies offered "decent grounds" for the legal action, regardless of whether he is guilty of sexual assault.
"The school handled it so poorly," she said. "At the end of the day, it's on the school for letting this lawsuit happen."
Who should judge campus cases?
Under pressure for its handling of sexual-assault cases,
The college last fall hired
"They wanted a neutral person, not connected to the college or the students," Greenspan said. "I just listen to them and try to make the correct decision, as I would in any arbitration."
"One way or another, schools are going to professionalize it," said
Sokolow said he has recommended for years that colleges exclude students from judicial boards in sexual-misconduct cases. Inclusion of students deters some victims from coming forward, he said.
Nearly two-thirds of area colleges that responded to questions from The Inquirer said students have seats on their boards. But some schools, including
"That is primarily to protect the confidentiality of the victim and the accused," said
She declined to say whether she agrees with the standard, but noted, "It's a very low bar."
Greenspan presides over the cases and determines guilt or innocence, but she doesn't impose the sanction -- the school decides on that.
She declined to comment on
She also declined to discuss any of the cases she has handled or even provide a number, except to say there were a few.
"We continue to look closely at the array of best practices around the country for the fair, appropriate, and impartial adjudication of sexual assault and harassment cases," said
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