Court Ruling Highlights Flaws In College Sexual Assault Proceedings — Will It Ripple Across U.S.?

Korin Miller
·Writer
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A male student at UC San Diego who was accused of sexual assault and suspended after a campus investigation filed a countersuit — and won. Here’s a look at if and how this could affect college rape trials across the country. (Photo: Corbis/Richard Cummins)

Experts say a new ruling in a sexual assault case involving two students at UC San Diego should be a wakeup call to schools across the country that sexual misconduct processes can be flawed.

The alleged assault happened after the students met at a party early last year, and began having consensual oral sex later that month, the Los Angeles Times reports. On Jan. 31, the couple went to a fraternity party and returned to the male student’s apartment, where they had sex.

That led to a sexual assault complaint, a university investigation, and suspension of the male student. The students have been identified only as “John Doe” and “Jane Roe” because of the sensitive nature of sexual assault cases.)

But Doe pursued legal action in court and won, in what is believed to be the first ruling in recent history that found a university failed to give a fair trial in a sexual assault case.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Joel M. Pressman cited the fact that Doe was prevented from fully confronting his accuser in the trial, as well as insufficient evidence that sexual encounters occurred without Roe’s consent. Pressman also ordered the school to drop its suspension against Doe.

Pressman based his decision on the following: Roe filed the complaint four months after the sexual encounter, alleged there were two cases of sexual activity without her consent and one instance of retaliation. She told a campus investigator that the alleged assault had greatly impacted her, but text messages and testimony showed that she continued to spend time with Doe. She also told the investigator that she was too drunk to give consent before the encounters, but statements from 14 witnesses said otherwise.

The investigator determined that one allegation of sexual assault without consent was valid, and the findings were confirmed by a university panel. Doe was suspended for a semester and ordered to sexual harassment training and counseling.

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After he sent a letter to the school’s dean, the suspension was increased to a year, and another panel lengthened the suspension even more.

Doe told the Times that he is innocent and said he was surprised by the school’s findings. He said he had attended UC Davis trainings on sexual misconduct and was aware of the need to make sure sex was consensual — but says he was treated as guilty all along.

“The campus tribunal is basically a kangaroo court,” he said. “I knew I never did anything wrong.”

The case has drawn attention from around the country as many are concerned that sexual assault proceedings aren’t always fair to either side.

Sexual assault lawyer Lisae C. Jordan, executive director and counsel of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, says the case shows that more work needs to be done in schools.

“Colleges need better guidance about how to conduct fair and sensitive hearings in sexual misconduct cases,” Jordan tells Yahoo Health. “Survivors and accused students will benefit from fair hearings with clear procedures.”

Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, echoes that sentiment, acknowledging that sexual assault cases are not easy to handle.

“It’s important for schools to strike the right balance because we know victims are often deterred from coming forward,” she tells Yahoo Health. “We hear reports from women and men who don’t know where to go or what resources are available. It has to be fair to both sides, but doesn’t inflict trauma on people who have suffered sexual assault.”

This issue is nothing new.

Currently, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating more than 100 campuses after reports surfaces that they failed to properly handle sexual assault complaints.

Chaudhry says this is a complaint regularly heard by her organization — schools aren’t properly investigating or investigating at all when an assault is reported.

She points to a lengthy Q&A issued by the U.S. Department of Education to educate people on sexual violence and procedures to follow in sexual assault cases. However, she notes that there isn’t a law that requires schools to follow certain steps. “The law really just requires basic fairness,” she says. That includes due process — a notice of the charges against a person and the opportunity to be heard.

Related: Nearly 19% of Female College Freshmen will be Victims of Rape or Attempted Rape

Beyond that, there’s a lot of flexibility for schools on how to structure their hearings.

Chaudhry doesn’t think this particular case with have a legal impact on a national level because it’s so case specific, but says it may be a wakeup call to schools about the need to solidify their proceedings in sexual assault cases.

“Schools are grappling with how to handle these issues, but they have a lot of information available to them on it,” she says. “They need to sit down with their lawyers and figure out how to conduct these hearing in a way that ensures fair process for everybody.”

Chaudhry admits that it’s hard to know whether the ruling will discourage other victims of sexual assault from coming forward, adding that she hopes this won’t be the case.

UC San Diego officials told the Times that they are considering an appeal.

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