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Ex-student sues Allegheny College over sex assault response

A former Allegheny College student has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school, claiming he was unfairly expelled after a sexual assault allegation was levied against him in 2014.

The ex-student is claiming the college violated his rights under Title IX, the federal statute that prohibits sex-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs.

The lawsuit, filed Feb. 3 in U.S. District Court in Erie, claims Allegheny discriminated against the male student on the basis of his gender during noncriminal proceedings to determine whether the student violated school policy by committing a sexual assault.

The plaintiff, who is identified as John Doe in the suit, was subjected to a hearing at the college level, though no criminal charges were filed against him, court documents state.

Under Title IX, federally funded colleges and universities must investigate accusations of sexual violence to protect students from sex-based discrimination. The schools may conduct hearings to determine whether the sexual violence occurred.

The former Allegheny student's suit claims that he was unable to defend himself against a "false" sexual assault allegation made by a female student that resulted in his expulsion from Allegheny after such a hearing. The suit claims he was given little time to prepare for the hearing and was prohibited from presenting evidence that the allegation was false or thoroughly questioning witnesses.

"The college has punished John with its most severe sanction — expulsion and a permanent record of the alleged violation — with no credible evidence and as a result of a process that contains virtually no procedural safeguards for accused students and is permeated with gender bias," the suit states.

The plaintiff, of New York state, is requesting damages in the five-count complaint, which claims Allegheny violated his rights under Title IX to be free of sex-based discrimination and breached its "contract" with him by failing to comply with its own policies regarding fair hearings. The suit also asks that the plaintiff be reinstated as an Allegheny student.

The plaintiff is represented by Erie lawyers Paul Susko and Tim George. Susko declined to comment.

Allegheny College will have the opportunity to respond to the complaint in court. Eileen Petula, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the college, also declined to comment.

"The college does not discuss or comment on pending litigation," she said.

The U.S. Department of Education monitors Title IX compliance. Allegheny is the subject of two pending Title IX sexual violence investigations by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, though it is unclear whether John Doe's case triggered one of them.

The Department of Education does not disclose the facts of the cases being investigated. Investigations can be prompted by complaints made to the OCR or initiated by the office as part of a compliance review.

The first investigation into Allegheny was opened in December 2014 and the second was opened in July 2015, according to a list, provided by the OCR, of 307 such investigations currently pending at 255 postsecondary schools.

The OCR has defined sexual violence as "physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person's will or where a person is incapable of giving consent, " and includes "rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse, and sexual coercion, " according to guidelines released in 2014.

The federal lawsuit filed by John Doe claims Allegheny expelled more male students based on sexual assault allegations after the announcement of the first Title IX investigation into the school's procedures.

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