Survivors’ advocates were heartened to see more people coming forward to help make campuses safer. But the increasing number of reports of sexual assault has also led to pushback from accused students who say the federal scrutiny on such cases — including a fast-growing public list of institutions under investigation for their handling of complaints of sexual violence — can lead schools to favor female complainants.
The case, filed by an anonymous plaintiff in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, comes at a time when Title IX and the ways schools use the law is under intense scrutiny. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos held a series of meetings about the issue last week, meeting with higher education leaders, advocates for victims and men who say they were falsely accused. After the meeting, she said, “No student should feel like there isn’t a way to seek justice, and no student should feel that the scales are tipped against him or her.”
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Many advocates for sexual assault victims worry that the changes the Obama administration put in place will be rolled back under DeVos; this week 20 Democratic attorneys general sent her a letter urging her to maintain them. “We’re calling on Secretary DeVos to listen to law enforcement and trust survivors of sexual assault by keeping these protections in place and putting student safety first,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, lead author of the letter, said in a written statement.
But critics of the department’s aggressive stance were hopeful that changes could be made to ensure that campus procedures are conducted in a way that gives a fair hearing to both parties.
At Catholic, Elise Italiano, a spokeswoman, responded to the lawsuit by saying, “The university remains confident in the way in which it conducted the investigation, the hearing and its conclusion.”
Jesse Winograd, an attorney for the former student who brought the lawsuit, wrote in an email, “Before the accusations against our client, Catholic University was placed on a Title IX watch list putting them in jeopardy of losing significant government funding.
“In response, the University found our client responsible for sexual misconduct when in fact the sex was entirely consensual. The substantial evidence of our client’s innocence includes text messages and witnesses that exonerate our client. The University would not allow us to present that evidence at the hearing, which had no semblance of fairness or due process.”
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Italiano said the university conducts Title IX investigations independently of other cases it might be handling.
“And so any allegation that we would conflate two cases or one case would bring to bear the way we would operate in another would be false,” she said.
Catholic is involved in another Title IX lawsuit brought by a former student. Erin Cavalier, a graduate of the school, filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 claiming that the university was “deliberately indifferent” to her report of a rape. Cavalier alleges the university mishandled her case, and has spoken publicly about the 2012 incident in which no criminal charges were filed. Before filing the lawsuit, Cavalier filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department, and in 2014, federal officials started to investigate.
Catholic has denied wrongdoing in that case.
The lawsuit filed last week claims that the two students met at an August 2014 party in Northeast Washington, flirted and later had consensual sex.
A year later, in 2015, the woman reported to the school’s department of public safety director that the encounter had been a rape. She said that she had lost consciousness after doing shots of vodka, according to the complaint.
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The suit claims the school’s procedures are “entirely inadequate because they are not designed to discover the truth of what happened.” During a university hearing, John Doe alleges that while he turned over text messages between the two students, a university official excluded those indicating friendly exchanges and plans to get together in the days after the encounter.
The suit also alleges that school officials often seemed openly hostile to the male student during the hearing, or indifferent — one member of the hearing board was checking sports scores as witnesses testified.
At one point, the suit claims, the Title IX investigator said nothing gives her more professional satisfaction than helping a female student prevail in disciplinary hearings in which a man is accused of sexual assault.
Days after the hearing, John Doe learned that he was found responsible for sexually assaulting the woman, whom the board found was incapable of giving consent because of intoxication. He was banned from university property and events for two and a half years.
No criminal charges were filed in the case, according to Winograd, John Doe’s attorney.
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