Monday, July 21, 2014

Prominent Title IX complainant who says her college ignored her sexual assault supports the lawsuit of a male ex-classmate who claims the school denied him due process when it expelled him for sexual assault

When it comes to the way colleges handle sexual assault, this is how broken the system is:  a woman who brought a highly publicized Title IX complaint against her college for ignoring her sexual assault is supporting the lawsuit of a male student who is suing the same college for depriving him of his due process rights after he was accused of sexual assault in an unrelated incident.

You read that right. At Swarthmore, Mia Ferguson was one of two students who filed a highly publicized Title IX complaint and publicly claimed that the school ignore her alleged sexual assault. In an unrelated incident, less than two weeks after Ferguson's claim was publicized, Swarthmore administrators reopened an an old complaint it had previously investigated and closed that was filed against a male student in connection with two sexual encounters he had with a classmate in 2011. The young man was expelled.

Let's look briefly at the young man's case. According to the young man's attorney, neither of the alleged sexual encounters that gave rise to the claim against him  involved intercourse, and the two students later had sex, which the accuser admitted she initiated. She didn't report the alleged assaults for 19 months. The school investigated for two months, interviewing both the accuser and the accused multiple times, before closing the case in January 2013 without filing disciplinary charges. Then Ferguson's claim was publicized, and the young man's attorney said the school was determined to make an example of him. That's when the case was reopened. He was a "whipping boy" that Swarthmore needed to demonstrate its own zero tolerance standard, his attorney claims.

Sadly, there's nothing unusual about young men being used as sacrificial lambs to appease the Department of Education. It's happening at many places. What is unusual is this, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer: ". . . 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.'"

The views of Ferguson -- a Title IX complainant and a woman who claims she was sexually assaulted -- stand in stark contrast to the views espoused, for example, by the angry feminist professor who mocked the young men who've sued their colleges alleging due process violations. "These lawsuits are an incredible display of entitlement, the same entitlement that drove them to rape." It would difficult to concoct a more hateful, dismissive comment -- and she actually teaches young men at her college.

This illustrates two indisputable points:

First, when it comes to protecting students from sexual assault and from unfairly being punished for sexual assault, it's not an either/or proposition or a zero sum game. Everyone benefits when the school protects students by aggressively weeding out rapists -- so long as it is done fairly. To ignore the due process rights of the accused undermines both fairness and the perception of fairness. When a school is perceived as being unfair, even when it acts properly in expelling a rapist, it's decision is suspect and will lack public confidence. That's not good for anyone. Balance is critical. That's why we need voices who will maturely and reasonably address the issues, not gender zealots who refuse to entertain even the possibility that schools aren't treating young men accused of sexual assault fairly.

Second, the system is broken. When will the Department of Education realize that? While we don't know the specifics of the Title IX complaints, we've seen enough to conclude that there is something wrong with the way many colleges handle sexual assault complaints. We do know more about the due process complaints filed by the young men and can attest that many schools are not treating the accused fairly.

What's the solution?  Many believe that rape claims ought to be handled by experts in law enforcement. But given the current cultural climate, it's not remotely possible that the Department of Education would allow schools to turn all claims of sexual assault over to the police and then have nothing more to do with them. One compromise position seems to be gaining traction. Law professor John Banzhaf posits:
. . . one solution well worth trying, suggests Banzhaf, would be to have separate impartial bodies set up jointly by many colleges in a city or geographical area for the sole purpose of investigating and adjudicating date rape complaints. Unlike individual colleges, they would be able to employ full time trained investigators following established investigatory protocols to impartially get to the bottom of such claims. 
Moreover, by using retired judges and others trained to evaluate evidence, they could better and more fairly - free from any possible biases - determine the truth much better than professors of computer science or geology who today often make up the disciplinary panels on many campuses.
Swarthmore is one of the schools headed in that direction, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Under pressure for its handling of sexual-assault cases, Swarthmore College turned to an outsider to oversee them: a retired Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice.

The college last fall hired Jane Greenspan, who has decades of experience as a trial and appeals judge and who now works as a professional mediator and arbitrator.

"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."

Swarthmore previously used a panel of faculty, staff, and students to rule on the cases.

The Swarthmore job was Greenspan's first appointment by a college to preside over sexual-misconduct hearings. Experts say such models are rare but likely to become more common as schools look to satisfy concerns that they mete out justice fairly.

"One way or another, schools are going to professionalize it," said Brett Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, based in Malvern. "They'll either do it themselves or more and more, they'll outsource it to firms like ours or to judges."

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 Drexel, said they were reconsidering that policy.

At Rowan University, students are not included on boards hearing sexual-misconduct cases.

"That is primarily to protect the confidentiality of the victim and the accused," said Melissa Wheatcroft, associate general counsel at Rowan.

To Swarthmore, Greenspan brings the in-depth knowledge of what standards, such as "preponderance" of evidence, mean. That's the standard colleges must apply to find a student guilty. It simply means more than a 50 percent chance the crime occurred.

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 Swarthmore's system.

"I know Swarthmore has worked very hard to get it right . . . with everyone's interest in mind, the rights of the accused and the victim," she said.

She also declined to discuss any of the cases she has handled or even provide a number, except to say there were a few.

Swarthmore hasn't committed to continuing to use an outside arbitrator. Its process, the college said, is under review.

"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 Alisa Giardinelli, Swarthmore spokeswoman.