Jill Cartwright, a Spelman College senior who says she was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend when she was a sophomore, worries about some of the proposed changes in the handling of investigations. EMILY HANEY / EMILY.HANEY@AJC.COM
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

Proposed changes in how colleges investigate assault cases draw fire

Jill Cartwright and Joseph Roberts both had encounters with sexual misconduct while they were students at colleges in Georgia. One made an accusation; the other was accused. Their experiences, from separate ends of the process, left both scared and thinking that the way schools investigate such claims is broken.

Cartwright, a Spelman College senior, said she was sexually assaulted by her boyfriend as a sophomore and the school was initially slow in investigating her complaint. Roberts, a Savannah State graduate, said he was falsely accused of sexual harassment by some female classmates and the school suspended him without due process weeks before he was scheduled to receive his degree in 2013.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed changes late last year to how schools handle sexual misconduct complaints, and how students like Cartwright and Roberts are treated during the process. The changes are an attempt to further revise Obama administration guidelines that DeVos and some student rights groups said too frequently denied due process to students accused of misconduct.

The proposed changes receiving general approval include preventing the same person on campuses from investigating and making decisions on a misconduct complaint, prohibiting unwelcome contact between accusers and the accused, and allowing both sides to appeal a decision.

But many educators, activists and assault survivors disagree with some of the provisions, particularly one that would change how complaints off campus are investigated.

A U.S. Senate committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Tuesday on campus sexual assault safety and rights.

What’s causing concerns?

The federal government recently received more than 40,000 comments to the proposed changes, some with concerns similar to those from Cartwright and Roberts.

One of the most frequent concerns has been when and where college officials are required to investigate misconduct claims. The proposed changes would limit schools’ obligation to investigate incidents that happen off campus. Schools would have to address the claims only if it occurs within their “programs or activities,” which could exclude places like student apartments and off-campus parties. While the proposal wouldn’t require schools to investigate those cases, experts and lawyers who work with colleges say many schools would still be pushed to continue investigating them.

One woman who graduated from the University of Georgia in May told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she was sexually assaulted off campus in October 2017. “Students are still bodies of the university. The location should not matter,” she said.

The AJC does not disclose the names of sexual assault accusers and survivors without their permission.

University System of Georgia leaders also disagree with the idea of limiting off-campus investigations.

“(T)he proposed regulations ignore that incidents occurring off campus or even during a study abroad program have a true impact on the campus community,” the system wrote in public comments to the Education Department.

Education officials said they’re still evaluating all of the comments sent by various students, agencies and organizations and did not discus the concerns. There’s no timetable on when any changes may be approved, a DeVos spokesman said.

Cartwright and Roberts have problems with some of the policy revisions, but for different reasons. She worries the changes would limit how accusations are investigated. He doesn’t believe the rules go far enough to protect accused students from being mistreated during the investigative process.

“To me, it’s alarming,” said Cartwright, 22, who said she was sexually assaulted off campus. “If these proposed changes are made, Spelman could have dropped my case.”

“The system is broken,” said Roberts, 38, now a law school student in California. “There’s no oversight. There’s no accountability.”

Georgia officials have made changes in recent years to better monitor and streamline how sexual misconduct complaints are investigated in public schools and colleges. There were complaints that campuses had different guidelines, making the process confusing, and that the rules at some schools violated due process rights of accusers.

There’s been heightened national awareness of sexual assault and harassment in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, is scheduled to visit several Atlanta colleges next week to discuss sexual violence on campuses.

The University System of Georgia, which oversees the state’s largest public colleges and universities, investigated about 70 sexual assault complaints in 2017, an AJC review of published annual campus safety reports released in October found. It investigated 69 the year before.

About a quarter of sexual misconduct reports to the University System occurred off campus, officials say. A former Morehouse College student sued the school in November, alleging a now-former faculty member sexually harassed him during a study abroad trip to Brazil in May 2015. Some institutions have asked for clarification from the education department about how study abroad programs would be classified under the proposed changes.

Some advocacy organizations for sexual assault survivors are considering lawsuits against the department if the changes to the federal Title IX regulations are approved, said Lisa Anderson, an attorney who represents several Georgia students who said they’ve been sexually assaulted on campus.

“The regulations would blatantly and unconstitutionally force schools to violate Title IX by requiring that they weigh disciplinary procedures overwhelmingly against sexual violence survivors,” said Anderson, executive director of Atlanta Women for Equality.

Schools have the authority to investigate and discipline students and faculty accused of sexual harassment and assault, but how cases are investigated and decided has been debated with greater scrutiny in recent years. And each case is different.

The state’s Board of Regents created uniform student conduct and sexual violence policies in 2016 and a year later approved giving University System administrators greater oversight over how its campuses investigate alleged misconduct.

Changing the rules

DeVos’ latest proposals follow some of her department’s earlier rollbacks of Obama administration guidelines.

Previous rules issued by Obama’s education department required schools to decide cases based on a lower standard of proof than required in criminal cases. In a “preponderance of evidence” standard decide misconduct complaints based on which side has more compelling evidence or testimony. DeVos, in 2017, changed that rule and also allowed schools to implement a “clear and convincing evidence standard” to determine cases. That higher proof standard put a greater burden on the accuser to prove that the misconduct had occurred. President Donald Trump, who’s been accused of sexual harassment, complained during his campaign and in office that the accused are too frequently found guilty before the situation is investigated.

It’s “a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of,” Trump said last year during the Brett Kavanaugh U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings that included sexual misconduct claims from the nominee’s high school and college years.

In Trump, Roberts, the former Savannah State student, found a politician who got it.

Roberts said he was suspended, based on a preponderance of evidence standard, without a hearing just weeks before graduation. He said he was accused of verbally harassing several female students, making them afraid for their safety. Roberts said he was only notified of his suspension through a campuswide alert that included his picture. The stress of it all, he said, made him contemplate suicide.

He initially sought support from members of Georgia’s congressional delegation active in civil rights issues. He thought they would sympathize. They didn’t, he said. Instead, Roberts found allies among conservatives and organizations like Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE). Roberts sued the university and the state’s Board of Regents in April 2015.

Roberts said he wishes the Title IX regulations would go further by holding administrators more accountable when students are falsely accused. He believes the Savannah State administrators involved in his case should have been disciplined. Savannah State declined comment, citing federal student privacy act rules. Roberts’ case was dismissed, in part, because the judge ruled he didn’t allege the school intentionally discriminated against him.

Roberts eventually wants to work in legislative affairs in Washington, D.C. “I want to be that impartial voice of reason.”

FACE co-president Cynthia Garrett supports some of DeVos’ proposed changes, such as in-person cross-examination of both the accuser and accused.

She’s thrilled with other proposals, such as prohibiting the same person from investigating and adjudicating complaints, called the “single investigator model.”

“How can someone objectively investigate when they’re in charge of making the decision?” she asked.

Garrett, though, does wonder about the proposal to change how off-campus complaints are investigated.

“I don’t see why a school can’t investigate a situation, particularly if it’s close (to campus),” she said.

Cartwright, the Spelman student who said she was assaulted, has also worked to improve how sexual misconduct complaints are handled by helping accusers.

Cartwright said Spelman officials did not include information in her case file that she submitted as part of the investigation. It took months, she said, to get a criminal trespass warrant against the accused, a Morehouse College student. Cartwright said he was supposed to be prohibited from campus, but was not.

She believes advocacy and attention on the issue helped Spelman and Morehouse improve how the schools investigate claims. She noted Spelman’s plans for a Gender and Sexuality Studies Institute and increased funding for Title IX programs.

“I’m not a victim anymore,” she said. “I’m a survivor. I’m someone who’s standing up for myself and standing up for other survivors as well.”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article has been updated to note that schools can use a “preponderance of evidence” or a “clear and convincing” standard to make disciplinary decisions in sexual misconduct complaints.

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