Clark sued again for its handling of sexual misconduct allegations

Freshman says school unfairly found him guilty of sexual exploitation

A LAWSUIT FILED against Clark University in Worcester is thrusting the college into the national legal debate about how charges of sexual harassment should be handled on college campuses.

A male freshman, identified in court papers as John Doe, says he was unfairly convicted of sexual exploitation by a panel of university administrators who didn’t allow him to review the details of the complaint against him or cross-examine his accuser.

The case, according to a story on the court filing in the Telegram & Gazette, appears to be a bit odd. Doe alleges that he and a sophomore at the university who was his freshman orientation mentor had consensual sex in September. The woman accused Doe of taking off his condom during intercourse, a charge he denied. The woman reported Doe to the university, which found him guilty of sexual exploitation and barred him from any campus leadership positions for a year and required him to undergo remedial training, including writing an essay about who was hurt as a result of what happened. Doe refused to write the essay.

The latest Doe case mirrors in some respects a case filed against Clark in 2015 by another John Doe. In that case, Doe was found guilty of rape and expelled from the university – all in 11 days, according to the complaint. He challenged the ruling in court, alleging he was treated unfairly by not being allowed to confront his accuser and present evidence showing voluminous text messages between him and his accuser suggesting they had a consensual relationship. He demanded $75,000 from the university; the lawsuit was settled in 2016.

The debate over how these sorts of incidents should be handled on college campuses is also undergoing change at the federal level. Under President Obama, schools were urged to treat allegations of sexual harassment much more seriously or face punishment under Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded institutions.

Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School, said many universities panicked and in their rush to defend the rights of alleged victims of sexual assault began disregarding the rights of accused students.

“In recent years, it has become commonplace to deny accused students access to the complaint, the evidence, the identities of witnesses, or the investigative report, and to forbid them from questioning complainants or witnesses,” Gersen wrote in The New Yorker. “At many schools, including Middlebury College and the University of Pennsylvania, investigators and adjudicators have been trained to ‘start by believing’ the complainant rather than to start from a position of neutrality.”

By some counts, half of the students accused of sexual misconduct since 2011 have sued their schools, and half of the suing students have won court rulings in their favor or reached settlements with the college.

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s secretary of education, in November proposed a series of changes to Title IX regulations on sexual harassment that have been attacked strongly by the left. The American Civil Liberties Union said on Twitter that the regulations favor the accused and “make schools less safe for survivors of sexual assault and harassment.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Gersen, while taking issue with a number of provisions in the regulations, said that overall they would make the process of dealing with sexual harassment on college campuses much fairer. She said there would be a presumption of innocence going into the proceeding and all parties would be entitled to see all the evidence and participate in a live hearing where cross-examination would be possible.

The process to transform the regulations into law could take years (more than 100,000 comments pro and con have been filed on the DeVos proposal) and the final language, if Trump remains in office, will probably be challenged in court. In the meantime, the process of dealing with sexual misconduct on college campuses will keep playing out in the courts.