DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For years colleges and universities were accused of being too lax when dealing with sexual assaults on campus. But now the opposite charge - some students say a crackdown on perpetrators has gone too far.
Dozens of students who've been punished for sexual assault are now suing their schools. They say they didn't get a fair hearing and that their rights were violated. Now for those of you listening with children nearby, we should warn you that the following story contains explicit material. Here's NPR's Tovia Smith.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: The accused students say schools are simply over correcting. Seventy plus campuses are now under federal investigation for violating the civil rights of alleged victims, and some students say schools are so scared, they're now violating the due process rights of defendants instead.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Right from the start they treated me like, you know, I was the scum of the earth.
SMITH: This man was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Amherst last fall when he was told he was being investigated for sexual misconduct and had just hours to move out of his dorm. It all started at a party. He says as classmate invited him to her room, asked him to bring a condom, texted her girlfriends about it, gave no signs of being drunk and repeatedly indicated that she wanted to have sex. So he says they did.
MAN: And then we kissed and fooled around for a few more hours. And then eventually she told me her roommate was coming back at some point and that I should leave but that she had a lot of fun.
SMITH: In her version of events, according to a University report, shortly after he left she began to feel pain throughout her body and started to, quote, "freak out," as she realized something had happened, but she didn't know what. She says she'd been drinking and had no memory of most of the night until a day later when she remembered, quote, "him having sex with me and holding me down." She told a friend who told a dorm advisor, and two days later the school launched an investigation. But he says the process was rigged from the start.
MAN: They were going through the motions. And, you know, I felt like I was just trapped in a tidal wave
SMITH: This student is one of at least three dozen now taking his school to court. He filed his suit as John Doe, fearing damage to his reputation, and agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. The lawsuit also names the female student as Jane Doe.
It claims that the hearing process was so biased against men that the school violated Title Nine by denying his rights to equal protection. For example, he says the University excluded witnesses and evidence that could've helped his case and wouldn't let them have an attorney speak for him as he was grilled, as he put it, by an unprofessional and hostile hearing board.
MAN: You know, he was cutting me off. He was cutting my witness off. And he was speaking to us in a belligerent tone. You know, he would just snap at me.
SMITH: The panel ruled against him, and he was expelled and then emotionally fell apart.
MAN: I had some really dark days. It's hard, you know? It hurts down to your bones.
SMITH: UMass Amherst officials won't comment on pending litigation, but they say due process for all parties is, quote, "central to their procedures and all board members are thoroughly trained." No comment either from other schools like Columbia, Williams, Vasser and Brown who've also all been sued by students are also say they were victims of a rush to judgment.
ANDREW MILTENBERG: I think witch hunt is a dramatic phrase. But I mean, I would tell a group of young men right now, woe is to you if someone makes an allegation.
SMITH: Attorney Andrew Miltenberg represents about a dozen men suing their school. He says UMass Amherst knew it was being investigated by the federal government and was desperate to prove it was not soft on sexual assault.
MILTENBERG: This young man was in the wrong place at the wrong time in the sense that it was an attempt by the University officials to say, oh yeah? Well, watch how we do this one.
ROBERT DANA: I expect that that can't help but be true. And yes, colleges are getting very jittery about it.
SMITH: Robert Dana, dean of students at the University of Maine says he's not familiar with the details of this case. But in general, he says, some rush to judgment is inevitable under the circumstances.
DANA: There's so much upset about these issues. I know that people get nervous and do come into the process not objectively, but ready to make a decision.
SMITH: Besides the legal pressure requiring schools to handle sexual assault cases, Dana says schools also have a moral obligation to make sure students feel safe. But to sum, the growing number of lawsuits makes it clear that schools are simply not up to the task of playing pseudo detectives and judges.
ROBERT SHIBLEY: Colleges need to understand their limitations and - you know, when it comes to felony crimes. That should be the task of law enforcement.
SMITH: Robert Shibley is from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. If victims don't want to go to the police because they believe they'll be re-traumatized by the process, Shibley says, then fix the criminal justice system. But, he says, sexual assault cases need to be handled by courts where the accused have basic protections like the right to an attorney and to cross examine their accuser.
On campus, Shibley says, accused students are effectively presumed guilty. Instead of requiring accusers to prove they were assaulted, accused students have to prove they had consent. And, Shibley says, it's also troubling that schools decide cases on the very lowest level of proof - a mere preponderance of the evidence.
SHIBLEY: That's sort of a hunch-level certainty that a person is guilty.
SMITH: But Shibley concedes there's not a lot of pity for accused perpetrators these days.
COLBY BRUNO: I don't have sympathy for the guy who assaults somebody and thinks he's been railroaded.
SMITH: Attorney Colby Bruno who represents victims says just 'cause guys are suing schools doesn't mean the process is unfair. Rather, she says, it just suggests some students are having trouble adjusting to the changing norms on campus sexual assault.
BRUNO: The cases where students are deluding themselves into thinking that what they did wasn't rape and sexual assault - I think those are 85 percent of boys coming forward saying I was railroaded.
SMITH: Bruno says false accusations are rare. And while numbers are hard to come by, she says, there are still far more perpetrators getting away with a slap on the wrist than innocent students wrongly expelled.
Annie Clark, a student survivor turned activist, says of course the process should be fair. But too much due process has cost too, she says. For example, giving alleged perpetrators the right to cross-examine alleged victims would make victims even more reluctant to report assault.
ANNIE CLARK: If a survivor is told that they would have to face their rapist and that person would be allowed to interrogate them, that could absolutely have a chilling effect.
SMITH: Ultimately, the courts will decide if schools have struck the right balance, and they may well say it depends. For example, a student who might just have to change dorms may be entitled to less due process than someone facing an expulsion that might permanently marr his record and impact his life. In other words, higher stakes would demand greater protections. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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