Due Process Win: Swarthmore College Settles Lawsuit With Accused Student

November 21, 2014

By Ashe Schow at Washington Examiner

Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania has settled a lawsuit brought by a student accused of sexual assault, admitting the school acted unfairly in charging the student.

In April 2011, a student identified as John Doe shared a kiss and at a later date “consensual physical encounters” with another student identified as Jane Doe, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this year. On May 1, 2011, Jane came to John’s dorm room and initiated consensual sex. The lawsuit alleges Jane admitted she initiated the encounter.

But 19 months later, Jane reported the kiss and initial physical encounters to Swarthmore, saying she had been coerced. After a two-month investigation, the school closed the matter without bringing charges against John.

A few months later, in April 2013, two other students, according to the lawsuit, filed complaints with the Department of Education. These complaints had nothing to do with John Doe.

These complaints caused Swarthmore’s president to announce a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault. Just a few weeks later, John Doe’s case was re-opened.

Within a month, John alleges, the school re-opened the case, fast-tracked a hearing and found him guilty of sexual misconduct for an incident that happened two years earlier and had already been investigated and closed. John appealed.

On July 12, 2013, the Department of Education announced it would investigate Swarthmore based on the Title IX complaints unrelated to John. Four days later, according to John’s lawsuit, his appeal was denied.

In early 2014, John filed a lawsuit against Swarthmore alleging multiple violations of its own policies and denying him due process.

Last week, John and Swarthmore settled the lawsuit and introduced a joint motion to dismiss. Swarthmore admitted there were “sufficient questions about the fairness of the hearing,” which warranted a reversal of the university’s decision against John.

Ari Cohn, the lawyer and author for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, applauded the school’s admission but noted that Swarthmore only admitted impartiality because of a lawsuit.

“If John Doe lacked the resources to file this lawsuit (as many students undoubtedly do), would he have ever received this acknowledgement?” Cohn asked. “Or would Swarthmore have been free to loudly (and falsely) proclaim to the world that it takes both sexual misconduct and its students’ rights seriously? It shouldn’t take a lawsuit for colleges and universities to treat their students fairly, and the fact that it did in yet another case leads back to the question that people on all sides of the debate seem to be asking these days: Why are colleges and universities adjudicating these cases in the first place?”

Colleges and universities, anxious to be removed from the Department of Education’s list of Title IX investigations, are being incentivized to punish students rather than fairly investigate reports of campus sexual assault. It is terrible that John Doe lost months of his life battling this lawsuit that he could have spent getting an education — a potential detriment to his future earnings potential. His case should serve as a reminder for other colleges that if they treat accused students as guilty until proven innocent and deny them due process in kangaroo courts, they will be sued.

Schools: Swarthmore College