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Oberlin College’s 100% sexual assault conviction rate prompts lawsuit, due process concerns

Ohio’s Oberlin College boasts a conviction rate for students accused of sexual assault that would make Vladimir Putin blush.

A lawsuit filed last year by a student expelled from Oberlin reveals that every student who went through the college’s formal sexual assault adjudication process was found responsible on at least one count.

William A. Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School who runs the Legal Insurrection blog, said the conviction rate “calls into question whether Oberlin’s sexual assault hearings amounted to nothing more than show trials in which the accused were presumed guilty.”

“At least Oberlin afforded the accused an opportunity to present a defense, which is not always the case,” Mr. Jacobson said in a statement. “But whether that was a meaningful opportunity, or just a procedural formality, is another matter in light of campus pressures to always believe an accuser and to fight ‘rape culture.’”

Oberlin officials declined to comment.

In response to Title IX guidelines issued by the Obama administration, colleges and universities implemented disciplinary proceedings curtailing due process protections — such as the presumption of innocence, access to exculpatory evidence and the right to cross-examine one’s accuser — for students accused of sexual misconduct.

Since 2011, the regulation has provoked more than 200 lawsuits from mostly male students who say they were not given fair hearings because of their sex, according to the group Title IX For All.

The Trump administration repealed the rule in September.

Filed in June, the Oberlin lawsuit details a sexual encounter on the morning of Feb. 28, 2016, between two students who are identified only as John Doe and Jane Roe.

According to the lawsuit, Jane Roe had been smoking marijuana and drinking when she texted John Doe and arranged to meet in his room. They engaged in 45 minutes of talking, kissing and sexual intercourse before Jane Roe asked John Doe to stop when she became physically uncomfortable, attributing her discomfort to being “not sober.”

John Doe then asked Jane Roe to perform a sex act, and she did, the lawsuit claims. The couple made friendly small talk before she left his room.

Oberlin expelled John Doe on Oct. 11, 2016, after a hearing panel found him responsible for sexual assault. The college said John Doe should have known that Jane Roe was too intoxicated to consent to sex, based on her remark of being “not sober.”

Oberlin’s sexual misconduct policy holds that someone who is intoxicated to the point of “incapacitation” cannot consent to a sexual encounter. Attorneys for John Doe said Jane Roe had not reached that level of intoxication at the time of their encounter.

According to the school’s Spring 2016 Campus Climate Report, Oberlin’s Title IX team investigated more than 100 reports of “potential sex-based discrimination and harassment” that academic year. The most common reports concerned sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence.

About 20 percent of complaints were referred for full investigation, the report said, and the threshold for the formal adjudication process was met in about half of those investigations.

In the cases that went through the formal resolution process, the accused party was found responsible for all charges 70 percent of the time. In the remaining cases, the accused party “was found responsible for some but not all of the conduct charges,” the report says.

Attorneys for John Doe said the conviction rate is evidence that Oberlin’s sexual misconduct adjudication process is “rife with gender bias.”

“The Oberlin employees who preside over hearings, and who judge appeals, have quite literally credited, at least partially, the allegations of every single student who came before them in the 2015-16 academic year, as of the date of this report,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also details how the Obama administration’s Department of Education influenced the sexual misconduct adjudication process at Oberlin.

On Nov. 24, 2015 — three months before the encounter in question — the department’s office for civil rights notified Oberlin that it was under investigation to see if the school had violated Title IX in its disciplinary proceedings. Title IX is the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education.

In response to the investigation, Oberlin overhauled its sexual misconduct policy, the lawsuit says, to create a “complaint-centered process designed to combat ‘rape culture.’”

“Oberlin knew that failing to appear to OCR during this investigation to be tough on sexual assault alleged by women against men risked substantial negative publicity and a loss of federal funding,” the lawsuit says.

Oberlin filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the climate regarding sexual assault on campus is not sufficient to prove John Doe’s legal claim of discrimination on the basis of sex.

“Plaintiff offers no allegations that, if believed, would demonstrate that Oberlin would have approached the sexual assault report at issue any differently if a female student, rather than Plaintiff, had been accused of sexual misconduct,” the motion reads.

Mr. Jacobson said the Oberlin case is just another example of “how destructive the Obama administration policies were to due process rights on campus.”

The John Doe lawsuit was the second high-profile legal claim brought last year against Oberlin that has further cemented the school’s reputation as a bastion of progressivism.

In November, Gibson’s Bakery in Oberlin, Ohio, filed a lawsuit against the school after it caught a black Oberlin student shoplifting. In the wake of the incident, students, faculty and staff at Oberlin accused the bakery of racial profiling and called for a boycott.

The bakery said in its lawsuit that Oberlin engaged in a campaign to “bully and financially strangle a century-old local business for refusing to succumb to the College’s demand that Gibson’s ignore student shoplifting.”

Three students involved in the incident later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors and, as a part of the plea deal, acknowledged that the bakery had not engaged in racial profiling.

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