A new lawsuit accuses Illinois State University of mishandling allegations of sexual misconduct involving a student. But it’s not the victims filing the suit. It’s the accused.
The issues raised by the former student come as college campuses across the country adjust to the Trump administration’s new approach to sexual misconduct in higher education. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded Obama-era rules last fall, replacing them with interim guidelines until new permanent rules can be implemented.
Among other things, DeVos said the old guidance was unfair to those accused of sexual assault. Critics are worried the process will roll back protections for victims.
The lawsuit was filed March 27 in federal court by John Doe, a former ISU student using a pseudonym. Doe was accused of sexual misconduct by two female students. He says those allegations were false and that ISU mishandled the investigation and violated his due process rights. He claims ISU knew the allegations were false but pursued them anyway.
Doe was suspended and later withdrew from ISU. His attorneys say criminal charges were never filed. He’s now working a “menial” job and hasn’t been able to transfer to another school, said his attorney, Mark Johnson. He’s seeking at least $1 million in damages.
“The ramifications have been pretty hard on him,” said Johnson, claiming it’s caused his client economic hardship and physical and emotional distress.
The allegations against Doe were investigated at ISU through the Title IX process, named for the federal law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in education. It has been best known for driving the expansion of girls' and women's sports.
In letters and official guidance during the Obama administration, the federal government told colleges and K-12 schools to investigate Title IX complaints more aggressively. They were told to adopt a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, a lower burden of proof than is typically required in a criminal case.
Doe’s attorneys say that more than 150 lawsuits have been filed against colleges and universities in the U.S. involving claims of due-process violations in Title IX cases.
“ISU is clearly in a tight spot, and they’ve been put in that tight spot by way of the directives of the Obama administration,” said Johnson. “We would like for ISU to understand they need to make some substantial changes in the way they’re bringing these charges, the investigation, and the ultimate (Title IX) hearing.”
In addition to the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, Title IX cases differ from criminal proceedings in other big ways, said Brendan Bukalski, another lawyer representing John Doe. Those accused in Title IX cases don’t have the same right to confront their accuser or cross-examine or call witnesses, he said.
“In criminal proceedings, it’s all about guaranteeing the accused the right to a fair trial,” Bukalski said. “And frankly, as the way Title IX hearings have progressed, it seems like having a fair hearing is the farthest thing from anybody’s mind.”
Bukalski said his client’s lawsuit highlights some of the concerns raised by DeVos, the education secretary, last fall as she rescinded the Obama-era guidelines.
“Our suit highlights what the natural consequences of loosening of the rules results in, versus what could be if the rules were granted more rights and a fair hearing,” he said.
In a statement, ISU spokesperson Eric Jome said he couldn’t comment on specific pending litigation.
“Illinois State University is responsible for complying with all federal and state civil rights laws. The University takes this responsibility seriously and has related University policies that ensure a fair, thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of discrimination and harassment,” Jome said.
“With respect to sexual misconduct allegations, ISU policy also ensures that each party has an opportunity to fully participate in an investigation and to review evidence before a final determination is reached regarding whether a policy violation occurred,” Jome added. “Further, the process provides opportunity for a person(s) to appeal an outcome of a case.”
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