It seems like only yesterday, but also a lifetime ago. After proudly serving my country in the Navy, I headed to Savannah State University in Georgia to study English in the hopes of later pursuing a legal career.
In the Spring of 2013, I was about to be the first person in my family to graduate from college. I felt that everything in my life was finally falling into place. After years of paying my dues, my hard work and sacrifice were about to pay off.
Then, one April morning, an email popped up in my inbox. It was from the Office of Student Affairs and said little more than I was hereby “summarily suspended.”
I was told not to set foot on campus, and within minutes an ominous campus alert went out warning my fellow students to immediately contact security if they saw me — headshot included. It was as if I was an escaped convict or an active shooter loose on campus. And it was all based on nothing but hearsay.
I would later find out that two students had accused me of sexual harassment. Rather than investigate, the school suspended me — no questions asked — the very day the first accusation was made. It was just weeks before what would have been my graduation.
An accusation does enough damage
From there, my story followed what I have since learned is an all-too-familiar pattern for the falsely accused: isolation from friends and family, loss of reputation, depression, substance abuse, suicide attempt. I say falsely accused, not wrongfully charged or convicted, because my “case” never went past the accusation. There was never any court other than the court of public opinion, where my side of the story was shared or even asked for.
This is another truth faced by students who are accused of sexual assault or harassment on campus: To be accused is to be deemed guilty. End of story.
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For those of us who are men of color, especially, the effects of false accusations can have highly devastating effects. Many Americans are familiar with the stories of athletes losing their scholarships, changing schools, losing their prospects and having decades worth of hard work and sacrifice lost because of the words of just one student. It is impossible to ignore the implications of race and class on this issue. Stories like this run from Emmett Till through today.
Rule changes benefit both sides
But now, things are changing for the better and for everyone. In May, the Department of Education released new regulations that establish some fairness in how these delicate matters are investigated on university campuses. While some falsely claim the changes to Title IX are controversial or unfair to accusers, those who read the new rule will be shocked that these steps needed to be spelled out.
The provisions in the final rule include basic obligations like:
► A college must actually investigate allegations of sexual assault or harassment;
► The school must investigate in a timely manner;
► Accused students cannot be suspended or expelled unless they’re found guilty;
► All evidence (and not just evidence that fits the school’s preferred narrative) must be disclosed;
► Investigations cannot be conducted by administrators who have a conflict of interest;
► An alleged victim’s rights and privacy (including medical records) must be protected;
► An alleged victim must be allowed to take steps to avoid contact with the accused, such as class schedules or housing reassignments, even if they haven’t pressed criminal charges;
► And that both parties must be allowed to appeal the administration’s decision.
These changes should not be called controversial because — except on college campuses — due process has never been considered controversial in America. It’s one of the basic rights this country was founded on. Sexual harassment is a serious allegation and it deserves a serious investigation. An investigation without due process is not only unserious, it is unfair to everyone involved.
I cannot imagine the pain and fear that result from being sexually assaulted. But I do know what it’s like to be traumatized and feel like my life has been destroyed. Because that’s what this experience did to me. I’m not alone.
To date, more than 150 lawsuits filed against universities over Title IX proceedings have ruled in favor of the accused students. Last year, the first-ever prospective class-action lawsuit was filed against Michigan State University by a student accused of sexual assault. If successful, it could reverse Title IX cases that did not offer essential due process protections.
After I was baselessly accused of harassment and robbed of my degree, I sued the university and the state’s Board of Regents in April 2015. Unfortunately, the case was dismissed but the university offered me an agreement that allowed me to finish my degree through online classes only. Though I should have graduated with my class in 2013, I was able to receive my diploma, through the mail, in December 2017.
This experience inspired me to continue to follow my legal dreams. Despite the unfairness that I experienced, I still believe in justice — for both sexual assault and harassment victims and the falsely accused. And I know the recent changes to Title IX will help both parties.
Joseph Roberts is a law student at Golden Gate University School of Law. He is the Trust and Belief coordinator at Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE), an organization dedicated to fairness and due process on campus.
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