Saint Joseph’s University, a private Catholic school in Philadelphia, was sued by a student suspended for an alleged rape over claims its sexual-assault policies virtually ensure that accused males will be found guilty.
The student, Brian Harris of Clifton Park, New York, is seeking more than $75,000 in damages in the complaint filed July 8 in federal court in Philadelphia accusing the school of negligence, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of Title IX, the law that bars sex discrimination at schools.
“SJU, in the manner in which it approaches the investigation, adjudication, and appeal of allegations of sexual misconduct and related claims made in connection to sexual misconduct, creates an environment in which a male accused is so fundamentally denied due process as to be virtually assured of a finding of guilt,” Kenneth Dubrow, an attorney for Harris, said in the complaint.
Title IX, known for guaranteeing women equal access to sports programs, bars all forms of sex discrimination on campus. Colleges across the country, under pressure for using antiquated procedures to prevent and investigate rapes and other campus sexual assaults, have been hit with federal complaints in recent months for violating Title IX or the Clery Act, which requires universities to report violent acts on campuses.
Alleged victims have filed complaints with the U.S. Education Department against Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College and Occidental College, among others. It’s unclear how many accused assailants have filed similar complaints alleging bias, although experts say such an action is rare.
Title IX is typically cited by female students who say their colleges aren’t doing enough to investigate rapes and sexual assaults, creating an unsafe campus environment for women, lawyers and victim’s rights advocates said. It’s unusual for a man found responsible for sexual assault to claim he’s been discriminated against under Title IX, said Susan Stuart, a professor of education law at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana, who has studied the statute.
“What I typically see are cases in which it’s not the offender who’s suing under Title IX, it’s the individual who’s been the alleged victim,” Stuart said in a telephone interview. “This really is an odd sort of situation.”
Joseph Lunardi, a university spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Saint Joseph’s allegedly conducted a cursory, superficial and biased investigation of allegations against Harris and failed to give him an opportunity to confront his accuser before suspending him for a year in January, according to the complaint.
Harris claims that he had consensual sex with a member of the Saint Joseph’s girls’ soccer team in November during his freshman year. Texts between the two led to a late-night tryst at the girl’s dormitory on campus, where he spent the night. The next day, Harris said, he was informed by a dorm manager that there would be an investigation into the girl’s claim of sexual misconduct, according to the filing.
Harris explained what occurred in an initial meeting with a campus investigator two days later, providing the text messages corroborating his version of the events, according to the complaint. The investigator allegedly was abusive, “unnecessarily comparing Harris to Jerry Sandusky,” the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach convicted last year of abusing boys, according to the filing.
Saint Joseph’s, in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia, requires that allegations of sexual offenses are reported to the Office of Public Safety and Security, which is then required to conduct an investigation and prepare a report for the Student Life Administrator.
Complaints of sexual offenses are resolved by an administrative hearing officer or by the Community Standards Board, a 17-person panel consisting of seven students, five faculty members and five administrators, according to the complaint. The accused isn’t permitted to be accompanied by parents, counsel, or by any person other than a Community Standards adviser during the hearing.
The accused is notified in writing after the standards board reaches a decision and the result may be disclosed to others including the Saint Joseph’s community, according to the complaint.
Harris was found guilty after a Dec. 4 hearing and suspended from the university. He was denied the opportunity to confront his accuser despite evidence contradicting the “baseless accusations,” his lawyers said.
In January, an appeals board found the text messages critical to the investigation and remanded the matter to the standards board, which later upheld its earlier finding of guilt, according to the complaint. At no time did the university contact police or other governmental authorities about the incident, Harris said in the filing.
A “biased and one-sided” investigation process at Saint Joseph’s deprives male students of educational opportunities on the basis of gender, Harris’s attorney said in the complaint.
Men who have been found responsible for sexual assaults often claim that they haven’t been given due process under the law, said Laura Dunn, founder of SurvJustice, an advocacy group for sexual assault victims. She said it was unusual for an assailant to say that the reason for the lack of due process was discrimination against men.
“Title IX is a tool that many women have been using to get justice on campus,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s kind of bold to take that tool to try to overturn a case in which a man receives consequences for sexual violence, which is a pretty rare outcome.”
Harris claims he has suffered from having an improper conviction on his school record, marring his ability to enroll in another college and stigmatizing him with a finding of guilt, according to the complaint.
The university’s handling of the matter was intended not only to “deprive Harris of his good name and bring him into scandal and disrepute amongst his neighbors and peers, but also to limit Harris’s future education and employment prospects,” Dubrow said in the filing.
It may be difficult for Harris and his attorney to establish that the investigation was discriminatory, said Stuart, the Valparaiso professor.
“I don’t see any factual allegations that males as a general rule are being picked on,” she said. “The process seems to be gender bias-free.”
The case is Harris v. Saint Joseph’s University, 13-cv-03937, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia).