Wrongly accused of rape? Students question their expulsions from Tech
Perhaps no school in the state has been as aggressive in punishing alleged sexual assailants in recent years as Georgia Tech.
With campus rape grabbing national headlines, Tech has expelled or suspended nearly every student it has investigated for sexual misconduct in the past five years, records show. And at Tech, officials finding a student responsible for “non-consensual sexual intercourse” must either expel the student or explain why they did not.
The school has also cracked down on fraternities, handing out a stiff sentence for a house where members were accused of hurling racial slurs at black female student.
But in its zeal to punish wrongdoers there are signs Tech has pushed too far.
This month, the school was ordered to reinstate a male student it expelled last year after finding him responsible for non-consensual sexual intercourse, commonly referred to as rape. It’s the only time in the past five years the state Board of Regents has overturned any public college on a sexual assault case, records reviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show. The case is one of two lawsuits pending against Tech President Bud Peterson, other school administrators and the regents by students arguing they were forced out of Tech unfairly after being accused of sexual assault.
The tempest has attracted attention from state lawmakers, who are set to hold a hearing on the issue as early as this week.
“My concern is due process,” said Rep. Earl Ehrhart, the Cobb County Republican who chairs the legislative committee that allocates funding to Georgia’s colleges. “This is about things that can follow students their entire lives. It can destroy their lives. I cannot in good conscience continue to fund Georgia Tech at the level that it requests without some assurance to parents that there will be due process for their children.”
Ehrhart and other lawmakers say they have heard from parents, alumni and Georgia Tech donors unhappy with the university’s student disciplinary process and the attention the cases have received.
Tech officials declined to comment, citing pending litigation. But they noted that the Office of Student Integrity handles more than 600 cases a year, and a campus working group that examined the office’s investigations found no problems with 95 percent of them.
‘I hadn’t done anything wrong’
Tech pops up frequently on lists of the most elite public colleges in the nation. But it also remains a male-dominated campus. While more women have enrolled at Tech over the years, male students continue to make up roughly 70 percent of the overall student population.
Tech has been working to narrow that gap. So there was dismay when, in 2013, an e-mail surfaced in which the social chair of Phi Kappa Tau instructed his fraternity brothers how to lure “rapebait” by getting female party guests intoxicated. The e-mail made national news, and Tech suspended the fraternity for three years.
Regardless, lawyers who have sued Tech allege that the furor over the incendiary e-mail helped set a tough new tone at the school. And they argue their clients’ rights have been trampled in the process. At least 12 Tech students have been expelled or suspended in the past five years for sex-related charges, records show.
One of those students — who returned to classes at Tech last week after the Regents reinstated him — spoke to the AJC. The newspaper agreed not to identify him since he was never charged criminally and the Regents effectively cleared him of wrongdoing.
The student’s troubles arose after he and another male member of the school’s marching band engaged in oral sex on two occasions in spring 2014. After the second encounter, the student told the fellow band member he didn’t want to pursue a relationship. Nearly a year later, the male student told school officials that during the second encounter he had been drinking heavily and the sex was not consensual.
The accused student described being summoned into the office of Peter Paquette, an assistant dean of students and head of the Office of Student Integrity, where he was informed for the first time of the allegation against him.
“My gut just dropped and I was shaking,” the engineering major told the newspaper. In that meeting, he said he told Paquette as much as he could about the encounter, which he maintained was consensual.
“I thought it was strange that he (Paquette) didn’t really ask a lot of detailed questions about the incident… but I gave it the benefit of the doubt that nothing bad would happen because I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said.
‘There is something amiss at Georgia Tech’
About a month later, Paquette asked to see him again, records show. The student said that when he arrived Paquette handed him a multi-page, single-spaced report summarizing his investigation. Paquette asked the student to respond to anything he disagreed with. The student said that, because he had a counseling appointment, he only had one hour to review the report, a fact which he says Paquette knew. Paquette’s investigative report shows he interviewed six other students who offered differing views and opinions of what they had seen and been told.
In the report, Paquette wrote, “both the victim and the respondent (the accused student) provide accounts that are reasonable to believe. Specifically, it is reasonable to believe that based on the nonverbal actions of Victim, that Respondent believed he had consent.”
But Paquette wrote that the role of the investigator is to determine “if one of the stories is more likely than not.” A few days later — just after taking final exams for the spring 2015 semester — the student was told he was being expelled.
The student had not yet informed his parents he was gay. Now he had no choice.
“It was traumatizing,” he said. “This forced me to come out and to do it in the most negative way possible.”
Over the summer, an appellate panel reversed Paquette’s decision. The alleged victim appealed, and Peterson, the university president, upheld the expulsion.
Both Paquette and Peterson declined to be interviewed for this article. The alleged victim, whose identity is confidential, could not be located by the AJC.
The student said he spent the fall semester working at his sister’s horse farm. He also filed a lawsuit. On Jan. 4, he received word he could return to campus.
“It’s great to be back,” he said. “But as I walk around campus I am wondering if people know who I am or what’s going on.”
The student’s lawyer, New York-based Andrew Miltenberg, called Tech’s process for adjudicating sex assault cases “out of date and broken.”
“There is something amiss at Georgia Tech,” he said. “It is a monument to everything that is wrong with these kinds of disciplinary cases.”
A rape allegation, 17 months later
The student’s complaints mirror those made by another male student in a separate lawsuit filed in November. That student, also not identified in the legal filings, was expelled in the spring of 2015 after a female student accused him of sexually assaulting her at his fraternity house, where they had been drinking.
The woman approached university officials in February 2015, 17 months after the alleged assault took place. She claimed that she and the student were alone in his room when he penetrated her vagina with his fingers. He stopped when she began throwing up, she said, according to legal documents.
The male student denies there was sexual contact. He said when the woman became ill from drinking he found a sober monitor, a fraternity brother who had not been drinking. Together they brought her water and helped her get home. The woman said she came to believe she had been sexually assaulted when she attended a seminar on sexual assault months after the incident.
Again Paquette investigated. The male student’s lawsuit claims that before making the decision to charge him, Paquette refused to speak to multiple witnesses who would have backed up his version of events. Paquette did, however, interview several sorority sisters of the woman, the lawsuit said. Some of their observations found their way into Paquette’s report. One woman called the accused “unpleasant and creepy.” Another said he “has a reputation for not treating women particularly well.” The male student’s lawsuit called the remarks rumor and hearsay.
The Board of Regents rejected this student’s appeal.
A lone investigator and secretive justice
The problems at Tech highlight the difficulties of adjudicating sexual assault cases on college campuses. In a report last year, the AJC highlighted the secretive judicial proceedings used by Georgia colleges.
Most victims of sexual assault never go to law enforcement, and it can fall to university officials to provide some measure of accountability. Campus judicial proceedings offer anonymity and use a lower burden or proof — more likely than not — than is used in criminal proceeding.
When a student accuses another of sexual assault, federal education officials prefer that schools use the “single investigator” model to look into the allegation— one highly specialized individual to investigate, decide responsibility and impose a sanction. Tech and the University of Georgia each use that model.
Stefanos Bibas, a former federal prosecutor and professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, said it spares the alleged victim from facing a cross-examination at a panel hearing, for instance. While that is laudable, Bibas said, the single investigator model provides fewer safeguards: the investigator’s personal biases may keep him or her from testing the credibility of the victim’s account.
“The stakes are substantial and you are centralizing power with one person,” he said. “Unfortunately the schools have all been running in this direction.”
‘I Am Black Georgia Tech’
Tech’s student judicial process has come under fire not just for sexual assault cases. Last year Phi Delta Theta was punished after members of the fraternity were accused of shouting racial slurs at a young black woman from the windows of their house.
Two months after the August incident, an investigation by Paquette’s office found the chapter responsible for violating portions of the Student Code of Conduct dealing with discrimination. The university handed down a “suspension in abeyance” sanction, effectively limiting the fraternity to academic activities and requiring members to undergo training as a qualification of lifting the suspension.
The fraternity said there was no evidence the incident ever happened. It also noted that the windows in question were locked or inaccessible. The fraternity appealed the suspension, arguing the university had denied it due process. But the damage had already been done. A group of students held a silent protest outside the fraternity house — some with signs that read “I Am Black Georgia Tech.” Reports of the alleged incident exploded on social media and Phi Delta was labeled a racist fraternity.
“For whatever the reason, the process over there seems to be rigged against the accused,” Jonathan Hawkins, Phi Delta’s attorney, said.
If the fraternity appeals, Leah Ward Sears, former chief judge of the Georgia Supreme Court, will review the case.
‘Get my degree and get out of here’
Change is afoot, although the shape it will take is unclear.
On the sexual assault front, the University System of Georgia is crafting a policy that will apply uniformly to all schools, including Tech.
And amid all the controversy over the Phi Delt case, Tech leaders assembled a working group to review the school’s process for investigating, charging and resolving violations of the student’s code of conduct. In a Dec. 15 report, the group suggested amending Tech’s Code of Conduct to ensure that the school hear both sides of a story before bringing charges, strengthen appellate rights and provide a way to challenge bias in a hearing.
Top administrators on Friday — at Peterson’s direction — recommended several changes to the Student Code of Conduct to address the concerns. They will be considered at a meeting later this month of a committee that handles student regulations.
Ehrhart says Georgia Tech is also placing taxpayer money at risk with its current guidelines, which have led to costly litigation and complaints. Right now, there is no due process at Georgia Tech, he said.
The male student who is now back on campus at Tech after his expulsion said his goal “is to get my degree and to get out of here.”
He noted that Peterson — who signed off on his expulsion — will be the one handing out diplomas when he eventually earns his degree, now a semester behind schedule.
“Now I have to go to graduate and, when I walk, I will have to shake the hand of the man who thinks I’m a rapist,” he said.
How sexual assault investigations work at Georgia Tech
Once a complaint is made with the Office of Student Integrity, both parties are contacted via email. The involved parties, including witnesses, are met with individually to share their accounts with an investigator. The interviews are compiled into a full report. The goal is to complete the process within 60 days. There is no formal hearing. Evidence and interviews are used by the investigator who makes a decision — the accused is adjudged responsible or not responsible — and then determines the sanction, if any. There is a mandatory expulsion in cases of rape.
Both parties may review and respond to the report before a decision is made. Either party may appeal the decision to the dean of students, who reviews the decision as part of a three-member panel. The appeal may then go to the university president and then to the Board of Regents. The burden of proof is a preponderance of the evidence, or more likely than not.