Every college and university has an obligation to protect the safety and welfare of its students—all of its students. Without question, that means protecting students from sexual discrimination and harassment. However, it also means protecting the rights of those accused of committing such crimes. After all, in this country, we have always believed in the principle that defendants are “innocent until proven guilty.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual misconduct, not every school is as zealous in protecting the rights of the accused as they are the rights of victims. Auburn University and schools like it may have the best of intentions. Still, when they deny due process to defendants, they put the fundamental American values of fairness and justice in jeopardy.
If you should find yourself accused of a sexual misconduct offense, you need to know that the school is not on your side. The school's primary concern is their own reputation, and that often rests on how sympathetic they appear towards alleged victims. Your first job in such a situation is to educate yourself about how your school deals with sexual misconduct complaints and how you can protect yourself.
A Brief History of Title IX
For several decades, most schools dealt with sexual misconduct allegations through the federal government's Title IX. Passed in 1972, Title IX was meant to curb sexual harassment and discrimination in U.S. educational programs, a worthy aim. At the time, many colleges and universities in this country were openly hostile environments for women and minorities.
The project was a success. Today, not only are institutions of higher learning accepting of women and minorities, they are among the most progressive spaces in America when it comes to safeguarding women and minority rights. In many ways, the academic community in this country should be justly proud of what it accomplished.
The problem is Title IX managed to succeed too well. In a rush to protect victims, the law evolved over time so that defendants lost many of the legal protections that we as a society have held so dear for so long.
First, the federal government threatened to withhold funding from any school that refused to prosecute Title IX violations. This created a built-in incentive for universities to pursue allegations. As a result, while schools played the role of unbiased judicial arbiters, they were anything but disinterested parties. Meanwhile, the definition of “harassment” became so broad that it included everything from unequal classroom treatment to rape. Most importantly, though, little by little, the government stripped away more and more due process rights for the accused.
A Title IX Turning Point
The Trump administration, under the guidance of education secretary Betsy DeVos, worked to restore balance to the situation. In early 2020, they issued new guidelines for implementing Title IX, and these guidelines went into effect in August with the fall 2020 semester.
While defense attorneys applauded the move, most colleges and universities did not. Instead, they saw the new rules as a direct affront to their own authority and a threat to the positive work they had been doing for so many years in the name of women and minority rights.
Very quickly, most university administrations hit on a strategy for getting around the new Title IX. When Title IX suited them, they kept it in place. However, they created new policies under student conduct codes to serve when Title IX didn't. In short, while the Trump administration's efforts might have restored balance to campus justice, instead, they created chaos and uncertainty. Getting a fair defense has become more difficult than ever.
Like many of their peer institutions, Auburn now has two separate tracks for dealing with sexual misconduct allegations. The first of these tracks is dictated by the new Title IX procedures. It isn't perfect, but it does restore some defendant rights.
- The Title IX coordinator appoints an investigator to pursue allegations. This investigator interviews both parties and any witnesses and collects any physical evidence.
- When the investigation is complete, the investigator turns over all materials to a panel that hears the case.
- The panel examines all the evidence. In addition, both the complainant and the respondent may have advisors, and these advisors may be attorneys. More importantly, advisors are empowered to call witnesses and to cross-examine them, an important new provision.
- Once the panel has rendered its decision, either side may appeal, though appeals are only granted for very specific reasons, including new evidence or the demonstration of clear bias in the process.
The second track for sexual misconduct, determined by Auburn’s Student Code of Conduct, continues a tradition of denying students many of their due process rights. Under the regulations for this track, the Office of Affirmative Action/ Equal Employment Opportunity (AA/EEO) appoints an investigator to gather facts in the case. At the conclusion of the investigation, that same investigator determines the student's guilt or innocence and forwards their decision to the Office of the AA/EEO who assigns penalties. Defendants are not entitled to a hearing at all. Essentially, a single individual is empowered as both investigator and judge.
Joseph D. Lento for Nationwide Title IX Defense
Penalties for sexual misconduct at Auburn University vary widely, from removal from housing to probation, suspension, and expulsion. If a respondent is found responsible, suspension will generally be imposed as a sanction at a minimum. Further, while the school promises it will try to keep allegations confidential, it also notes that it cannot guarantee confidentiality. If an accusation should be made public, it can destroy your future. Finally, it's worth knowing that the school reserves the right to suspend a student defendant during an investigation if they decide the student poses a danger to the campus. Even if you are entirely innocent, your academic career could be disrupted by the accusation.
If you or your child finds yourself accused of sexual misconduct, take the allegation seriously. Find out how Auburn treats these allegations and how to protect yourself. Then, pick up the phone and call Joseph D. Lento.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento specializes in sexual misconduct cases on college campuses. He's defended hundreds of clients just like you across the United States. He knows Title IX law, and he knows how that law is changing. He also knows how campus judicial processes work. Joseph D. Lento will fight hard to get you every one of the rights you're entitled to. He'll stand by your side from start to finish and get you the best possible resolution.
For more information, contact the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686, or use our automated online form.