College Backlash And A Difficult Balancing Act On Sex Assault

By Jeremy Roebuck and Susan Snyder The Philadelphia Inquirer.

He called it consensual. She called it rape.

Their college, Swarthmore, acted decisively.

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 Philadelphia.

The young man at its center -- an honors student and former high school class president identified in court filings only as John Doe -- says he was wrongfully accused and found guilty of sexual misconduct by a school eager to quash criticism that it did not take assault allegations from female students seriously.

"To correct one wrong -- its past unresponsiveness to female complaints -- [Swarthmore] committed another wrong against John based on his gender," his lawyer, Patricia M. Hamill, wrote in court filings. "He was a male accused of sexual misconduct at the wrong time and in the wrong place."

With universities across the country under pressure from victim advocates, government regulators and even the White House to respond more aggressively to sexual assaults on their campuses, several, including Swarthmore, are also facing lawsuits from male students who say the pendulum has now swung too far in the opposite direction.

And in a new wrinkle, many of those suing -- including former students at St. Joseph's and Philadelphia Universities -- are pursuing sex-discrimination claims under Title IX, the federal law better known for its role in protecting women's rights on college campuses.

Experts say the legal tactic is too new for them to determine whether it will stand up in court.

A federal judge in Philadelphia recently dismissed one male student's Title IX claims against St. Joseph's University, saying the plaintiff had failed to show that gender bias drove his expulsion for sexual misconduct.

A judge in Ohio, however, allowed a similar claim to proceed, saying the student might be able to demonstrate that the process set up to hear misconduct cases at Xavier University was unfairly stacked against men.

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 Melissa Wheatcroft, associate general counsel at Rowan University, "making sure victims are taken seriously and protected, and at the same time, protecting the rights of those who are accused."

Brett Sokolow, director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, bluntly warned in a newsletter this spring that some male students may have been improperly penalized.

"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 Anthony Villar, who was finishing his junior year at Philadelphia University when he was expelled.

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, William Spade.

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.

"Anthony Villar wants to set a precedent that any woman who comes forward and claims she is sexually assaulted can now be sued in federal court," they said in court filings.

Lawyers for Philadelphia University contend Villar fundamentally misunderstands the issues.

"Villar's lawsuit suggests that during an internal administrative disciplinary process, he was entitled to the rights of a criminal defendant," wrote school lawyers James A. Keller and Joshua W.B. Richards.

The university's very quarrel with that, Spade says, is exactly the problem.

Villar's complaints against the university's disciplinary process echo those voiced in several of the Title IX suits filed against schools such as Vassar, Duke, Columbia, and Delaware State.

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 U.S. Department of Education that campuses lower the standard of proof needed in sexual-misconduct hearings.

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 Robert Shibley of the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

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.

Department of Education guidelines and a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last 30 years cemented colleges' responsibility to investigate all reports they receive by casting failure to do so as a form of sex discrimination.

Within that framework, school administrators say they are doing their best in what has recently become an increasingly pressured environment.

In recent months, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth Universities have all faced student protests and federal complaints that they failed to adequately investigate or assist sexual-assault victims.

Earlier this year, President Obama commissioned a task force to investigate the problem and last month proposed new rules to "ensure that disciplinary proceedings . . . are prompt, fair, and impartial."

In April, the Department of Education announced it was investigating 55 colleges including Swarthmore, Temple, and Pennsylvania State University.

Few colleges have grappled as publicly with the issue as Swarthmore.

A highly selective college of 1,500-plus students in Delaware County, it became a flash point last year for anxiety surrounding the handling of sexual assaults on its campus.

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 Hope Brinn and Mia Ferguson, two students who said they had been sexually assaulted and then ignored, only stoked the outrage.

They alleged that the college's inaction amounted to a form of discrimination against women.

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *