A male student’s lawsuit claiming that Columbia University is biased against men accused of sexual assault will have to overcome data that shows the school found most accused students not responsible in the last three years.
The lawsuit is notable because it’s the first from a male student accused of sexual assault to make it past dismissal on the claim that his school discriminated against him in violation of the gender equity law Title IX. In a 3-0 ruling on July 29, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit vacated a district court’s judgment dismissing the suit. Court documents refer to the student as John Doe.
Much of Doe’s case rests on proving that Columbia administrators are more inclined to believe that male students accused of sexual assault are guilty. But for the past three years, the university has released reports on the outcomes of its campus sexual assault hearings that could make it difficult for Doe to support his claim.
According to Columbia:
In the 2015-16 academic year, one student accused of sexual assault ― listed in Columbia’s report as “non-consensual sexual intercourse” ― was found responsible of violating the school’s code of conduct after a hearing. The school additionally found five accused students not responsible, while another student accepted responsibility. Of the two students responsible for sexual assault, one was suspended for two years and the other was expelled.
In 2014-15, two accused students were found responsible for sexual assault, and five were found not responsible. Three other accused students accepted responsibility. Of the five students responsible for sexual assault, three were suspended and two were expelled.
In 2013-14, one student was found responsible for sexual assault (presumably John Doe, who says he was suspended). Three other students were found not responsible.
Taken together, between fall 2013 and spring 2016, Columbia found 13 students not responsible for “non-consensual sexual intercourse” and four responsible, while four others accepted responsibility. As a result of the 21 rape cases that the university formally adjudicated during those years, three students were expelled and five others were suspended.
Columbia does not state whether the students involved in these cases identified as male, female, trans or genderqueer. But going by the numbers, a majority of students investigated or charged with sexual assault as violations of Columbia’s code of conduct are deemed not responsible.
It’s likely Columbia will use the statistics to refute claims that it is biased against men, said Jamie Abrams, who teaches torts at the University of Louisville’s Brandeis School of Law. But it’ll be tricky for the school, because the numbers also seem to support campus rape victims’ longstanding claim that Columbia rarely finds accused attackers responsible.
“These statistics certainly do not propel the plaintiff’s case forward, but really, they strongly underscore how hard it is to prove discriminatory intent on the basis of sex,” Abrams told HuffPost.
Taken together, between fall 2013 and spring 2016, Columbia found 13 students not responsible for “non-consensual sexual intercourse” and four responsible, while four others accepted responsibility.
Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, agreed that the statistics are a hurdle Doe will have to overcome to prevail in his suit.
Title IX requires colleges to address reports of sexual harassment and assault on campus, and female rape victims often cite it when arguing that their school violated their rights. But accused male students, many represented by Doe’s attorney Andrew Miltenberg, have started claiming they’re the ones being discriminated against in violation of Title IX.
After Columbia found Doe guilty in February 2014 of non-consensual sexual intercourse and suspended him for one year, he argued that the university failed to inform him of his rights, denied him opportunities to prove his side, and didn’t interview key witnesses ― all because he is a man.
Miltenberg did not reply to a request for comment, but his client’s case has made more progress than similar ones that have come before it. Up until the 2nd Circuit decision on Doe’s case, courts had dismissed Title IX lawsuits from men accused of sexual assault by arguing that schools may simply have a bias against accused students as a group, rather than those of a particular gender.
A footnote in the court’s ruling on Doe’s case was particularly relevant, Gary Pavela, editor of the Association of Student Conduct Administration’s Law and Policy Report, told Inside Higher Ed. The footnote said a university “that adopts, even temporarily, a policy of bias favoring one sex over the other in a disciplinary dispute, doing so in order to avoid liability or bad publicity, has practiced sex discrimination.”
In other words, Doe doesn’t have to show evidence that Columbia’s system for adjudicating sexual assault cases is continuously, consciously biased against men.
It’s significant that the 2nd Circuit allowed Doe’s suit to move forward to allow him to acquire evidence like the outcomes of other adjudications, Abrams said.
“A jury may someday then have the chance to weigh which evidence it finds most probative of discriminatory intent,” she said, “if any evidence is there at all.”