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UMass Amherst sued over handling of sexual misconduct investigation, proceedings

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. Courtesy photo



@dustyc123
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

AMHERST — A male former student is suing the University of Massachusetts Amherst in federal court over its handling of sexual misconduct allegations against him, which his lawsuit characterizes as “gender-based discrimination.”

The lawsuit, filed on Oct. 11, names as defendants the university, assistant dean of students Louis Ward, associate dean of students Patricia Cardoso-Erase and Title IX coordinator Debora Ferreira.

Among the allegations in the anonymous John Doe’s lawsuit are that university officials waited too long — 330 days, until after Doe’s graduation — to schedule a sexual misconduct hearing, that officials intimidated potential witnesses from Doe’s fraternity, that the university is improperly withholding his degree and violating his due-process rights, that UMass’s misconduct investigations and hearings are flawed and that its policies and procedures are “biased against male students.”

“The university has no comment on the litigation,” UMass Amherst spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in a statement. Requests for comment from Doe’s lawyers went unanswered on Friday.

The litigation comes at a time of significant change at the federal level over how schools handle sexual misbehavior allegations. Last month, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced her administration would rescind and rewrite Obama-era guidance on campus sexual assault to protect the due-process rights of those accused of misconduct as well as victims coming forward with those allegations.

In his complaint, Doe’s lawyers directly reference DeVos’s statements on campus sexual misconduct and the Department of Education’s recent interim guidance on Title IX, a 1972 law that protects people from discrimination based on sex.

“The Department promulgated the new guidance specifically to protect the due process rights of accused students and ensure fundamental fairness to all parties, but the University has ignored and continues to ignore these rights,” the suit reads.

‘Dear Colleague’ letter

At the center of the national conversation on sexual assault is 2011 guidance — the so-called “Dear Colleague” letter — that President Barack Obama’s administration handed down, using the threat of cutting federal funds to ensure that institutions of higher education investigate all sexual misconduct allegations.

Women’s rights advocates praised that move from the education department’s Office for Civil Rights as leading to significant changes on many college campuses, such as requiring a lower standard of proof — a preponderance of evidence standard — when adjudicating those cases.

Since 2011, however, male students have filed a large number of lawsuits against colleges and universities, alleging that they were denied due process in proceedings that were unfairly biased against them. DeVos called those campus hearings “kangaroo courts,” and last month scrapped the Obama-era rules, allowing schools to use a higher standard of proof.

That decision was welcomed by advocates for those accused of sexual misconduct, but others have seen those changes as part of a larger rollback of legal protections for women under the administration of President Donald Trump.

The latest pushback to the education department’s actions came on Thursday, when women’s rights activists and three unnamed student plaintiffs from Massachusetts sued the department and DeVos over her announced intent to change campus assault policies. Filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, the case contends that DeVos is violating Title IX.

At UMass Amherst, Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy said at a forum on sexual violence last week that the university continues using the preponderance of evidence standard.

Changing national policy

It is under that context that Doe has filed his lawsuit against UMass Amherst, making explicit reference to the changing situation at the national level.

“The OCR guidance rendered it virtually impossible for charged students, virtually all male, to defend themselves against accusations of sexual assault,” Doe’s lawsuit reads, using an acronym for the education department’s Office for Civil Rights. “OCR, in effect, enabled a system in which state and private universities can easily strip students of their rights.”

“The harm caused by the 2011 ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter has impacted John and his life by causing UMass Amherst to disadvantage him on the basis of his gender,” the suit continues.

Doe’s lawyers also argue that because of the time that has elapsed, Doe has already been deprived of a fair hearing, as Doe and potential witnesses on his behalf have graduated and are no longer on campus.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.