WASHINGTON – Female students nationwide have filed federal complaints that claim campus sexual-assault investigators lack training, fail to adequately probe incidents and treat the attackers with too much leniency.
Now, college men accused of sexual assault are protesting the same system. Taking a page from the women’s complaints, men are citing violations under Title IX, the anti-gender discrimination law that women have used to demand equality in sports programming and education for 40 years.
Men are claiming the investigations are biased in favor of their accusers, who are most often women. Campus sexual-assault investigations represent a parallel criminal-justice system run by school officials without legal training in which evidence and the burden of proof are scant and punishments harsh, said Robert Shibley, senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
The sanctions, which can include expulsion from college are “massively life-changing,” Shibley said. The process “makes someone guilty of what in most states is considered a felony.”
In the past two years, men either disciplined or expelled have filed discrimination cases against Xavier University in Cincinnati; Vassar College in Poughkeepsie; Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.; Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.,; St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia; and the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
The trend reflects a wider debate over how sexual assault is dealt with on campus and how that process differs from the broader criminal justice system. As a result, both female and male students are building cases under Title IX, interpreting the law to give themselves the best possible outcome.
Peter Yu, a Vassar student accused of sexually assaulting a female student last year, wasn’t allowed legal representation during the college’s investigation of his case, according to his lawyer, Andrew Miltenberg, an attorney with Nesenoff & Miltenberg in New York. As a non-native English speaker from China, Yu wasn’t able to tell his story, according to a lawsuit citing Title IX violations filed against the college.
“If you were a senior in college and had paid $200,000 for your education and were hoping to go to medical school, would you want to put all that on the line without a lawyer?” Miltenberg, who maintains his client’s innocence, said in a telephone interview.
Yu was expelled in March. Vassar officials declined to comment.
Title IX’s requirement that colleges provide equal opportunities in sports programming for men and women has been clear for decades, reshaping college athletics and women’s sports. The U.S. Education Department has been slower to define the law’s role in sexual assault, said Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, an advocacy group based in Centreville, Va.
In April 2011, the Obama administration published the “Dear Colleague letter,” which emphasized that schools would be in violation of Title IX’s anti-gender discrimination rules by failing to address sexual assaults. To make sure everyone got the message, copies of the letter were sent to every U.S. college, and Vice President Biden held a press event in New Hampshire.
The legislation requires colleges to investigate sexual assaults so that campuses are safe places to learn for both men and women.
Education Department guidelines call for probes, which are usually conducted by a small panel of school officials, that should take less than 60 days. Penalties can be appealed by both sides, and colleges can be sued for imposing sanctions, such as expulsion.
Young men in college face a growing risk of being accused, said Nicole Colby Longton, an attorney who sued Holy Cross on behalf of a student accused of sexually assaulting a woman on campus.
“One sexual encounter that involves alcohol, and the next thing you know you’re accused and expelled and branded for life,” Colby said in a phone interview.
Men’s use of Title IX to fight assault charges raises a new obstacle in the long battle for women to gain protection from campus rape, said Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, a Washington-based advocacy group for victims of sexual violence.
“Defense attorneys are trying to get the playing field back to where it used to be, where sexual violence was ignored on campus for fear of lawsuits,” Dunn said.