- Jeff Gunn via Flickr creative commons
A University of Texas at Austin student is suing the president of the school for what he sees as an overstep on the university's sexual assault policy.
The saga began in spring 2016 when the male student (who, in legal documents is referred to "John Doe") went to a UT sorority formal with a female date. That evening, Doe said he and his date (referred to as "Jane Roe") drank several alcoholic beverages, and ended up at Doe's apartment where he claims they had consensual sex. Roe, however, said that with six drinks in her system, she was far too intoxicated to give conscious consent that night — prompting her to file a report to the Title IX office, the department where students can report sexual assaults and other forms of gender-based violence.
UT's February hearing on the case was ruled on by a one-person panel (which is unusual for Title IX hearings on other large campuses). The chosen "hearing officer," an administrator trained in student conduct and sexual assault policy, was chemistry lecturer Conrad Fjetland. He ultimately ruled that an assault had not taken place because Doe and Roe were intoxicated but not incapacitated — which apparently means the sexual encounter falls within "consensual boundaries." He made this ruling despite the hearing's Title IX investigator confirming that slurred speech or unsteadiness are signs of incapacitation — both of which the woman exhibited during the evening.
Roe then appealed the ruling to UT President Gregory L. Fenves, who overruled the school's original hearing outcome and promptly suspended Doe for five semesters. As evidence, Fenves pointing to a witness statement that said Roe was, "incredibly intoxicated, no longer coherent, at a point where she needed to be taken home away from the event because she couldn’t form sentences."
Which leads us to the Monday lawsuit. In the filing, Doe's lawyers argues that Fenves overstepped in his role in determining sexual assault cases, possibly because he was influenced by the woman's father, a major UT donor. The lawyers also alleged that the university, the president of the school, and the Title IX office are predisposed to discriminate against males accused of sexual assault.
In her testimony, Roe said she confronted Doe following her alleged assault, voicing her upset over not having consensual sex. Doe allegedly apologized to Roe several times and sent her money for birth control. But his lawyers say that even though Doe apologized, it was not an admission of guilt.
This lawsuit comes during an especially tumultuous time of national debate over both the prevalence of sexual assault on campus and the White House's shifting views of the issue.
Schools across the country have begun surveying their students to determine the realities of sexual assaults on campus. Last spring, a UT study found that a whopping 15 percent of its undergraduate women had been sexually assaulted since enrolling.
Meanwhile, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has begun to unravel the Obama Administration's approach to combatting sexual assaults on campus. Candice Jackson, the top official of the DOE's Office for Civil Rights, said that Title IX sexual assault investigations need to be more fair to the student accused of the assault. In an interview with the New York Times, she claimed that 90 percent of the accusations, "fall into the category of ‘we were both drunk,’ ‘we broke up, and six months later I found myself under a Title IX investigation because she just decided that our last sleeping together was not quite right.'"
Jackson later apologized for the wildly unfounded comment, which opponents said trivialized the epidemic levels of sexual assaults that occur at universities like Stanford, which found that 43 percent of its undergraduate women have been sexually assaulted.
Advocates for sexual assault survivors and school officials have repeatedly proven that these claims are rarely false. Stanford law professor Michelle Dauber, who has worked to advocate for improving sexual assault policies on college campuses, said students who are accused for sexual assaults already have more rights than students facing other disciplinary punishment on campus. That's because during the school's hearings, students accused of sexual assault are allowed an advisor (someone to counsel the student on what to say) and are allowed the right to see any and all of the evidence from the accuser. This is not the case for students facing any other types of discipline on campus.
"We need to make sure that we don't hold sexual assaults out as extremely separate [from other crimes]," Dauber said. "There's just not a great justification. Why should a person accused of sexual assault need more rights than alleged perpetrators of other crimes?"
Another issue tangled up in campus sexual assault is something she calls the "Brock Turner problem." (A reminder: Turner was the Stanford student convicted for raping a woman last year, who received a mere six months of jail time.)
Students who have been sexually assaulted often report that they don't feel comfortable telling their universities about the incident, like the victim in the Turner case, because they feel like their schools won't believe them — let alone hold the perpetrators accountable. She says that the "boy-will-be-boys" mentality is making many women and transgender students who have been sexually assaulted weary of speaking out. "There's a persistent pattern of minimizing these problems," Dauber said.
The Trump Administration sees it differently. DeVos has already pushed for campus reforms that increase the amount of proof needed to rule at Title IX hearings and remove what some campus officials say is pressure to find a suspect for the assault.
But that won't help Jane Roe. She said her alleged assault has permanently changed her sense of security on and off campus. "I'm always looking out or nervous to bump into him," she said in the court documents. "I just realized I don't feel safe."