Understanding Sexual Misconduct Charges at West Virginia University

There aren't many charges against a student that carry the weight of a sexual misconduct allegation.

That's true in an emotional sense: The accusation against you often comes as a complete surprise, and it may be made by someone you trusted, someone you may even have loved.

It's also true in a practical sense, though. If you're facing an investigation at West Virginia University, your very future may be at stake. The minimum penalty, if you're found responsible, will probably be suspension. More likely, you'll be expelled. Worse still, in today's digital world, a sexual misconduct allegation—even if it's proven to be false—can follow you around online for the rest of your life, coloring how everyone you encounter perceives you.

If you've been charged with either Title IX or non-Title IX sexual misconduct, don't take it lightly. You can fight the allegations, and you can win, but you can't do it alone. The procedures in such cases are complicated, and the bureaucracy can be almost impossible to navigate. You need someone who understands campus justice to stand with you.

So, take a deep breath. Find out all you can about how your school treats sexual misconduct. Then find the very best legal representation you can to help you fight.

What the Heck is Title IX?

If no one has mentioned Title IX to you yet, they will. That's because for a number of years now, Title IX has been the main mechanism by which colleges and universities investigate and adjudicate accusations of sexual misconduct. That situation has begun to change. More and more cases each year are treated as non-Title IX violations. To understand one kind of violation, though, you need to understand the other.

Title IX is a federal law, passed in 1972, that prohibits sexual discrimination in any federally funded education program. That means schools aren't allowed to treat their male and female students differently. Admissions standards must be the same, access to resources must be the same, course requirements must be the same. Big deal, right? Who's going to disagree with any of that?

Under the law, though, the term “discrimination” has taken on a broad meaning. It doesn't just mean unequal treatment. Title IX prohibits any behaviors that are sexually motivated, and that could potentially prevent someone from receiving an equal education. That means stalking, assault, even rape qualify as “sexual discrimination.” And it isn't just schools that are held accountable under Title IX. It is students as well.

That's where the problems arise. It's one thing to be prosecuted for sexual misconduct in the U.S. courts, where a learned judge presides over proceedings, where you're innocent until proven guilty, and where a unanimous jury must decide you are guilty “beyond a reasonable” doubt before they can convict you. It's something else entirely for an accounting professor, an English TA, and a third-year paleontology student to sit in judgment over your guilt and innocence. Colleges and universities aren't set up like courts. As a result, mistakes happen—a lot of mistakes. Many respondents find they aren't given the rights they deserve, and they aren't subject to justice that is fair and impartial.

Title IX Sounds Awful. What Are Non-Title IX Cases Like?

Actually, Title IX has undergone some important changes in the last several years, changes designed to improve how respondents are treated. In 2020, the Trump administration issued brand new guidelines, the Final Rule, which tries to regulate how investigations and hearings should work. Among the changes: the administration narrowed the definitions of “discrimination” and “harassment”; it limited schools' jurisdictional authority; it guaranteed some essential rights to the accused.

This should have solved most problems with the law. Title IX was improved, and schools could finally administer justice in a fair and equal way.

Unfortunately, things didn't play out that way. Most schools felt the government was impinging on their authority and interfering with the good work they were doing in the name of victims' rights. Some even sued the administration. When that didn't work, they created alternative sexual misconduct policies designed to apply to cases that Title IX no longer covered. These became the so-called “non-Title IX” cases.

In fact, you should know that nothing about Title IX is settled yet. The Biden administration is already trying to find ways to roll back Trump's Final Rule. In fact, the administration has already issued instructions about how schools might effectively bend the rules. Ultimately, in the wake of the new guidelines, Title IX is now more complicated and confusing than ever.

So, What Happens if I'm Investigated Under Title IX?

Sexual misconduct cases always begin with an allegation. In Title IX cases, investigations proceed only if the complainant or the school's Title IX Coordinator signs an official complaint.

Once that complaint is signed, you are formally under investigation, but you are also entitled to certain rights. First, the school must notify you of the charges against you, including a full explanation of what you've been accused of doing. As part of this notification, they must advise you that you are to be treated as innocent until proven “responsible.” You have the right to appoint an advisor to help you with your case, and this advisor can be an attorney. In addition, the school is required to offer the complainant (your accuser) certain supportive measures such as medical care, counseling, and course adjustments. You are entitled to the same measures.

The coordinator appoints an investigator. That person meets with both sides in the case. In addition, they collect physical evidence and interview any witnesses. You have the right to suggest evidence and witnesses you think they may have missed. You also have the right to be accompanied by your advisor at all meetings, though the school can limit whether the advisor can speak to the investigator directly.

When the investigation is complete, the investigator is tasked with writing a full report of their findings. Both sides have ten days to respond to this report and request any changes.

Are the Title IX Investigator's Findings Final?

The investigation is only the first half of a Title IX case. Once the investigation is complete, the investigator forwards their report to the Title IX Coordinator, who then goes through the process of setting up a hearing.

All respondents in Title IX cases have the right to a live hearing during which they can defend themselves. Either side, however, may request this hearing be conducted via closed-circuit video.

At West Virginia University, a single administrative official is assigned to serve as the Hearing Officer. This person presides over the hearing and ultimately decides the outcome of the case.

At the hearing, both sides may present evidence and call witnesses. Both may ask questions of one another as well as the witnesses. However, all questions must be submitted to the Hearing Officer who actually asks them. This person has the right to ask their own questions as well.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the Hearing Officer deliberates. They are required to use the “preponderance of evidence” standard when evaluating evidence and testimony. This standard, far less rigorous than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, requires only that decision-makers believe it is “more likely than not” that the respondent violated Title IX.

In addition to deciding whether or the respondent is responsible, the Hearing Officer also assigns any sanctions as necessary.

Both sides have a limited right to appeal the findings of the hearing to the school's provost or president should new evidence arise or should they be able to demonstrate clear bias on the part of a Title IX official or a mistake in the Title IX procedures.

What Happens if My Case is Non-Title IX?

If you aren't being adjudicated under Title IX, then your case falls within the non-Title IX procedures. Because these cases fall outside of Title IX protections, schools can essentially handle them in any way they like without regard to due process rights.

In cases where respondents face suspension or expulsion, West Virginia University generally adheres to the same processes they use for Title IX cases. That is, the school conducts a full investigation into the matter, and students are entitled to defend themselves at a formal hearing.

For cases where the penalties would be less than suspension, however, the Student Code of Conduct doesn't mandate a hearing. In such cases, the school undertakes an investigation, but that investigation occurs before any formal charges are made against a student. Once the charges are made, the student can accept an “Agreed Resolution” or participate in a Conduct Conference.

At the Conduct Conference, respondents are entitled to present evidence supporting their innocence occurs to a “Campus Student Code Administrator.” Importantly, however, claimants are not present at Conduct Conferences, though they are free to contact the administrator and submit evidence.

As in Title IX cases, West Virginia University does provide all students found responsible for sexual misconduct with the opportunity to appeal that decision. Appeals must be filed within 14 days to the Dean of Students. This person may only consider the following:

  • Whether the school had proper jurisdiction in the case
  • Whether the procedures were followed and whether they were fair
  • Whether the decision matched the facts in the case
  • Whether the imposed sanctions were appropriate.

While respondents have the right to appeal a Hearing Officer or Conduct Officer's decision, so do claimants. This includes disputes over the level of sanction applied in the case.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento Can Help

You need qualified legal representation to help you defend yourself against sexual misconduct charges. Title IX is complex. School justice procedures are complicated. You can't be expected to know every subtle nuance of those procedures. That's what a lawyer is for.

More importantly, far too much is at stake. The minimum penalty your school is likely to assign is suspension. Far more likely, they will do everything they can to expel you.

Attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm specialize in educational sexual misconduct cases. He's spent years studying Title IX and using it to defend clients. He's dealt with every possible type of allegation. Whatever you've been charged with, Joseph D. Lento knows how to get you the very best possible resolution to your case.

If you or your child has been accused of sexual misconduct at West Virginia University, act now to protect your future. Call the Lento Law Firm today at 888-555-3686 or use our automated online form.

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If you, or your student, are facing any kind of disciplinary action, or other negative academic sanction, and are having feelings of uncertainty and anxiety for what the future may hold, contact the Lento Law Firm today, and let us help secure your academic career.

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