In a first for the Obama-era Office for Civil Rights, the Education Department’s OCR found in favor of an accused student who filed a Title IX complaint against Wesley College. At the least, after five years, we’ve finally found a case whose facts were so outrageous that even an OCR notoriously indifferent to due process couldn’t justify them.
The letter has received extensive coverage; the facts of the case are tawdry. At a fraternity in the Delaware school, two students had sex. Unbeknownst to the female student, the intercourse was streamed and witnessed (allegedly) by two other members of the fraternity. Two other students found out (from another fraternity member who had heard about the affair), went to the college, and an “investigation” ensued. Within seven days, all three of the accused students—the male fraternity member who had sex, and the two who allegedly watched—had been expelled.
The college violated multiple procedures in its handling of the case. It didn’t give the accused student a clear sense of the charges against him. It didn’t tell the student that the hearing (which would recommend his expulsion) actually was a hearing—the student thought it was a preliminary conference, so he had no witnesses to testify on his behalf. The college also gave the student an interim punishment—suspension—before the hearing, even though at that point of the “investigation,” the student had spoken to no one at the college about his side of the story.
Although the OCR letter doesn’t take a position on the matter, it suggests that the case should never have been brought against the accused student at all. Wesley’s policy suggests that charges shouldn’t be brought against a student in a case without an accuser. In this instance, the accuser told Wesley administrators that though she hadn’t consented to the streaming of the intercourse, she didn’t believe the accused student had any role in the planning or execution of the event. Yet Wesley went forward with charges anyway.
The entire investigation and adjudication took a week. OCR investigators found that in 10 or the 12 most recent Title IX cases at Wesley, the matter had been resolved “in a matter of days.”
Though Wesley was the subject of the Title IX complaint, the real target could have been OCR itself. As FIRE’s Will Creeley has noted, “Given the many similarities between the procedural failures found by OCR here and those alleged by accused students in lawsuit after lawsuit over the past few years, chances are that Wesley College’s failings are far from unique.”
For instance, in its discussion of the threshold for imposing interim punishments, the resolution letter noted that “while a school must assess whether the presence of an accused student threatens the safety of individuals within the school community, a sufficient level of inquiry–that is not here evident–must be undertaken in determining the appropriateness of interim suspensions.” Yet nothing in OCR guidance over the past five years would have suggested that colleges should consider the rights of accused students when imposing interim punishments. Will OCR now retreat from its enthusiastically championing of the interim punishment approach for all students accused of sexual assault?
Similarly, the resolution letter noted that “OCR has concerns, however, that the College’s expedited investigation of complaints of sexual harassment and sexual violence may have compromised the equity of such investigations.” Yet nothing in OCR guidance over the past five years would have suggested that colleges should refrain from lightning-fast “investigations” and adjudications—indeed, OCR has been relentless in its pressure that colleges should speed things up. (Recall the Peter Yu case at Vassar as a particularly egregious example of how lightning inquiries frustrate pursuit of the truth.) Will OCR now abandon its pressure tactics on speed of inquiries, and encourage colleges to choose timeframes that allow students accused of sexual assault—who are, effectively, required to prove their innocence—enough time to prepare their case?
Finally, the letter is a striking testament to OCR’s hypocrisy. The only case specifically investigated involved treatment so unfair to the accused student that even OCR said the judgment had to be invalidated. Yet the general recommendations in the letter veered in the direction of changing procedures to increase the chances of guilty findings (more “training,” for instance, to remove a lack of “clarity” regarding the preponderance of evidence standard) or ensuring that more cases are adjudicated (fewer employees designated as eligible for confidential reporting). OCR expressly criticized the existing policy (which Wesley ignored in the case that prompted the complaint) of not having cases go forward without an accuser.
So, in short, while this case will need to be re-tried to allow the accused student to defend himself, the actual outcome of this letter is that more accused students at Wesley likely will be subjected to unfair procedures down the road.