Student Suspended For Sexual Assault Complaint Argues The College Practiced ‘Anti-Male Bias’

The judicial system is considering whether colleges that dole out punishment for findings of sexual assault may be violating the federal gender equity Title IX by practicing “anti-male bias,” now that a lawsuit from a former Columbia University student is being allowed to proceed.

Reversing an earlier court decision, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said the lawsuit may move forward. The court wrote in its opinion that it was not “implausible or unreasonable” that the disciplinary panel was biased in favor of the female student who made the complaint, and biased against the male student accused of sexual assault.

The lawyers of the former student, identified only as John Doe, are arguing that the university officials’ decisions violated Title IX, and that public pressure is partly responsible for the student’s yearlong suspension in March of 2014. Doe said the university did not interview witnesses he said would aid him in his case, that officials had been “hostile” to him, and that he was not fully informed of the assistance he was entitled to to defend himself.

Doe’s argument of bias is mostly focused on the university’s Title IX investigator, Jilleian Sessions-Stackhouse, who wrote the report considered by the disciplinary panel. The panel ultimately concluded that John Doe “directed unreasonable pressure for sexual activity toward the complainant.”

Doe alleges that Sessions-Stackhouse’ questioning of him was “akin to cross-examination calculated to elicit a confession” and that when he suggested that witnesses who had been at the residence hall lounge the night of the alleged sexual assault would be helpful, she didn’t follow up with said witnesses. He also says that Sessions-Stackhouse’ report was false.

In large part, however, John Doe’s argument about “anti-male bias” points to many of the steps the university took to acknowledge concerns about sexual assault on campus, as well as student’s actions to bring more attention to the issue of sexual assault.

The opinion mentions that the student newspaper called investigations into sexual assault complaints “inadequate,” that the membership director for the Columbia University Democrats accompanied Jane Doe to the hearing, and that the university president decided to have a university-wide open meeting on the subject of sexual assault on campus. All of these details were provided as supposed evidence that the university, and the investigator in particular, felt pressured to proceed with the complaint with bias.

The opinion notes that there can anti-male bias in this scenario because bias doesn’t have to “result from a discriminatory heart but rather from a desire to avoid practical disadvantages.”

The university has argued, however, that motivation to show it takes sexual assault complaints seriously is not the same as a motivation to discriminate against a male student — and that the decision not to include the witnesses suggested by John Doe was justified because the alleged coercive behavior was not witnessed by outside parties, making their testimony insufficient. It’s unclear in the opinion what exactly the witnesses observed that Doe believed would have helped his case.

The fact that John Doe cited the university’s actions to respond to allegations that it wasn’t properly responding to complaints as evidence of anti-male bias may be disconcerting for universities that are considering the best ways to address sexual assault on campus. If student activism, student newspapers, and university officials’ actions can be represented as evidence of bias against male students accused of sexual assault, could it have a chilling effect on universities that are reconsidering how they conduct investigations?

The answers to that question is unclear because this particular lawsuit is still in its very early stages. But if it is successful, it is likely to allow more male students who were suspended or expelled after sexual assault allegations to plausibly argue that they suffered from anti-male bias.

A fair disciplinary process — both for the student bringing the complaint and for the student who is accused of misconduct — is the exception, not the rule. Universities still have unevenly applied processes for reporting sexual assault, and many don’t have rules to ensure that parties affiliated with one of the students — such as a coach of an accused athlete — are not on the disciplinary panels that arrive at findings on sexual assault complaints. There were 315 Title IX investigations in regards to sexual harassment as of mid-June, according to information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by The Huffington Post.

Research published earlier this year also found that, in many cases, universities and colleges are downplaying the number of crimes that occur on their campuses, including sexual assault. The report, published in the Psychology, Public Policy and Law journal found that the vast majority of schools studied reported zero cases of annual off-campus assaults, despite the fact that the institutions of higher education are required through federal law to make a “good faith” effort to retrieve that data from local police.

The student discipline process is very different than a criminal case because the burden of proof is not the same. In a sexual assault complaint, the standard of proof for finding responsibility is 50.1 percent — meaning that the university concludes there is a 50.1 percent chance that the accused student did what they were accused of.

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