Matthew* adored his small liberal arts college—until he was charged with and, ultimately, issued a semester-long suspension for non-consensual sexual intercourse with another male student.
“One of the key phrases was ‘We found you guilty. Plan on not booking a flight back.’ That still punches me in the stomach,” Matthew told The Daily Beast. “The following day, I had an 8 a.m. flight, I was up till 3 a.m. I had to pack up all of my room.”
His love and trust in his college completely changed when he was notified that the school was “investigating two alleged incidents of nonconsensual sexual intercourse,” according to the letter Matthew received from the Office of Title IX Coordination, which he shared with The Daily Beast. (Title IX is a statute that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding, and it is often applied to enforce sexual assault reform.)
Matthew adamantly denied both charges, stating their first encounter was consensual and the second was not actually sexual.
He said at that second encounter, the accuser “led me into a room and started kissing me. I said, ‘I’m not comfortable,’ and he said he needed to go.”
Matthew thought nothing of their most recent encounter, until he was notified a few days later that he had been accused of two counts of sexual assault.
The next couple of months were a devastating time of being “branded a rapist,” he said, on his small campus and breaking into panic attacks every time he crossed paths with his accuser.
“During this process, I learned what it meant to be scared,” he said.
In addition to grappling with what, in his mind, was a false accusation, Matthew lived in fear of further retaliatory charges. He became frightened to be alone on campus, terrified of running into his accuser.
“I had class and tried to do homework and pretend it was all OK, but I was considered a threat. This is a small residential college, so how do you navigate the space where you don’t want to see this person and you can be accused of retaliating?
“What do you do if you go to class and you see this student? You have to turn away because even if you brush against them, you can be accused of retaliating.”
Matthew was disappointed with the investigatory process at his school and felt he had been “unfairly treated.” During our interview, he cited what he saw as many failings in the process, including the fact that the majority of the witnesses he submitted to the Title IX office were never called.
“I do want to recognize sexual assault is real and horrible. I’m happy to know there are procedures and things put in place to bring justice to those who are sexually assaulted. Their stories should be told.
“But in cases like mine, those who abuse the system and use it to hurt other students, whatever ulterior motive, with sexual assault… it is a horrible thing to happen.”
Magnifying the pain and stress of his situation is the fact that this suspension forced him to come out to his parents.
“Can you imagine coming out to your family under the pretenses you’re accused of sexual assault and you’re found guilty? During the investigation, I knew my family would be there to support me, but I could not imagine coming out to them twice: first, as an alleged rapist and second, as someone who is gay.
“I’m struggling with depression,” he said. “I’m struggling with insomnia. I’m struggling to figure out the rest of my life. I’m trying to pick up the pieces.”*
In January 2014, President Obama launched a special task force to investigate rape and sexual assault on campuses.
On May 1, 2014, the Department of Education revealed 55 schools were under investigation for Title IX violations related to their mishandling of sexual assault cases. That list has since grown to well over 100.
During the past two years, the federal government has stressed how severe a problem sexual assault is on college campuses, often citing that one in five female students are sexually assaulted, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics releasing another study supporting that estimate this past month. This most recent study defined sexual assault as “forced kissing, touching, grabbing or fondling,” according to Inside Higher Ed.
That broad definition has raised concerns about the accuracy of the one-in-five and the even more alarming one-in-four statistic published in 2015 and whether these statistics misleading perpetuate a sense of panic on campuses.
Attorney Andrew Miltenberg estimated that around two years ago, he had only had five or six cases involving male students suing their schools for being wrongfully expelled or suspended for sexual assault or violence.
“There was not a daily flow of calls on this topic, and now there are. In the last 18 to 24 months, the complaints and how to represent and process these disciplinary matters have become an issue,” Miltenberg told The Daily Beast, saying he has been approached by young men from over 100 different universities over that time seeking his legal counsel.
With the federal government’s efforts in the past two years bringing more attention to campus sexual assault, the media has more often reported the perspective and experiences of victims of sexual assault, understandably so because they had been ignored, stigmatized and, in some cases, actively silenced for so long.
Less frequently reported are the turmoil and hardships for the students accused of sexual assault, as well as the emotional (and financial) anguish suffered by their families during an investigative process that many—including the Harvard Law faculty—argue violate their due process rights.
Miltenberg believed the disciplinary process itself contributes to the emotional turmoil for the students accused of sexual assault.
“It almost feels like the process is part of the punishment,” said Miltenberg. “They [his clients] are suicidal. They are depressed. They are anxious. There is an overwhelming sense of despair because the weight of the institution and the weight of the process are bearing down on them. They are dropping out. They are in therapy.
“The counterpoint is, think of the trauma to the victim, and of course, I do. I have two daughters and a son,” Miltenberg said.
To him, the sexual assault disciplinary process on campuses is a disservice to both the victim and the accused. “There’s something about the way the process is evolving that doesn’t work for the accuser and the accused.”
For this article, I interviewed people I found through Families Advocating For Campus Equality, a group established to provide legal guidance for students who believe they were falsely accused of sexual assault. The students and their parents all described their encounters as completely consensual, even in one case, not in fact sexual in nature.
It goes without saying that this cohort has its own biases and, in some cases, anger.
Nevertheless, these students’ and their families’ stories paint a rarely told account of the emotional and financial hardships of going through the campus sexual assault disciplinary process as someone accused of one of the most heinous crimes possible.
“It’s a heavy burden to bear. The stench never leaves. The stigma attaches no matter how it resolves,” said Miltenberg.
While Matthew is grappling with whether to return to a school that, he believes, punished him for a false accusation, his option is enviable to someone like Alex*, a 23-year-old who asked to have his last name withheld. Alex was expelled from his college in fall of 2014 for sexual assault, six weeks before he was set to graduate.
Alex said officials from his school have refused to answer his or his father’s request for how the disciplinary panel decided to expel him or reject his appeal.
Instead, on the day the decision was reached, he said an administrator simply told him, “You have to pack up all your stuff and be moved off campus by 4 o’clock today.”
Alex, who had been on the school’s football team, described being in a state of shock while trying to quickly pack up his belongings and empty out his locker room before his teammates arrived to avoid the embarrassment of explaining he had been expelled—or why he had been expelled.
“We were all getting ready to go on a bus to go on an away game. I was supposed to go on a bus with them, and I was getting kicked out. I tried to get to the locker room to clean out my locker, but a few were there early. That was really embarrassing. I said goodbye to them. I wished them luck.”
His parents drove close to three hours to pick him up and take him home. After filing his appeal and having it “rubber stamped” with a rejection, as Alex called it, by the Title IX coordinator, his shock turned into depression.
“I was just in a rut. I moped around my house. I didn’t work. I gained weight. I didn’t want to go back to the gym and show my face because everyone thought I was supposed to be at school. I didn’t want to answer questions about why I was there [and not at school]. I thought about the situation and cried myself to sleep. I was borderline suicidal.”
Alex said he decided to start going to therapy this past April, around six months after he was expelled, because “I just knew I wasn’t mentally healthy,” he said. “The thoughts I was having about driving my car off the road into a tree were scaring me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone who loved me. I knew I needed help.”
While Alex said he takes antidepressants every day now (40mg of Celexa) and regularly sees a therapist, he has by no means recovered, financially or emotionally.
“It’s ruined my life. It’s too late to go back to school and pick a different career. I’m embarrassed. It’s put a hold on my life. I still have no degree, nothing to show for it. I feel like everything has just stopped, and I can’t go anywhere,” he said.
Charlotte*, whose son was expelled from a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, said her son struggled with suicidal thoughts from the moment the campus disciplinary process began.
She remembered getting the call that he had been accused of sexual assault—and had been rushed to a psych ward.
“I was at the grocery store with my husband. I get a call from my son and he says, ‘Mom, they’re taking me to the hospital. Carly [editor’s note: not the real name of the female student] is accusing me of rape and I freaked out, and I said what’s the point of living? They’re taking me to the psych ward and I’m scared,’” she told The Daily Beast.
“He said he had a plan for how he was going to carry out suicide,” Charlotte said.
Her son was initially suspended a year, but when his accuser wrote a letter appealing and begging for a harsher punishment, he was expelled, Charlotte said.
“I still have fears that the suicide thing might come back,” Charlotte said. “He’s assured me that he’s fine, but he’s not moving on. He’ll do chores around the house if I ask him. It has to be very specific direct requests. He doesn’t have a lot of internal motivation.
“I feel this whole thing has killed the son I had. This is not my son. He was so driven, so motivated. He had this whole plan, and now, it’s like he’s dead.”
Parents interviewed for this article echoed this description of the dramatic mental health toll of their sons’ experiences of being falsely accused of sexual assault on college campuses—even when they were ultimately found not guilty of the charges.
Abby* said her son was charged with sexual assault as a freshman at Southern Methodist University (SMU), even after a grand jury declined to indict him for the alleged incident.
Her son was found not guilty by the school by his sophomore year, according to Abby.
However, even though a college investigation at SMU exonerated her son, Abby said he has been irreparably emotionally changed by the disciplinary process. She said it was far worse that the criminal investigation and grand jury process.
“As terrifying as going through the legal process—the potential was 22 years in the federal pen, which is a terrifying thought—knowing he didn’t do something wrong, we thought the truth would prevail,” Abby told The Daily Beast. “And it did. He got through that pretty well. He had his rights and his rights were upheld.”
But the mental health problems he now suffers are a result of the protracted school disciplinary process and “mind games on the part of administrators,” she said.
SMU is not one of the universities under federal investigation for violating Title IX in its handling of sexual assault.
“When we started down the path for the school disciplinary process, it blew out of control. You’re hearing no harm no foul. But it’s not fine. He’s not the same person he was. He will not be the same person he was,” Abby said.
She recalled how the formerly optimistic, cheerful boy her son was vanished after the school investigation.
“He was probably in middle school, and I said, ‘The glass is always half full for you,’ and he said, ‘Oh, no, for me the glass is always filled to the brim.’ That’s how he looked at life,” Abby said.
It’s a stark contrast to the life she said her son now leads, fearful of leaving his apartment and suffering from PTSD, depression, and anxiety.
Abby said multiple psychiatrists diagnosed these mental health disorders as direct results of the trauma caused by his former university’s disciplinary process. He has been unable to complete a semester at his new college.
When asked to comment on the allegation that the school’s sexual assault investigatory process directly resulted in an accused student’s development of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, SMU’s Office Of Public Affairs told The Daily Beast in an emailed statement: “SMU takes each report of sexual assault seriously and follows its procedures, in accordance with the federal law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, state law and university policy. The university recognizes that these cases are complex and can have significant consequences for all involved.”
When Abby and I spoke, she said her son had officially withdrawn from his new school for a second time, five days into the semester.
“He can’t go out to a restaurant. It’s too stressful. Those [PTSD] victims seek a safe place. When they carve out that safe place, they don’t leave it. He doesn’t go out to the grocery store. He orders in,” she said.
“He called me the other day sobbing, ‘I’m so tired of this. I just want this to go away.’ That’s the norm now,” she said. The fact that her son was exonerated is of cold comfort.
“You see your kid destroyed through no fault of his own. The destruction this has caused is just unbelievable. In part, too, it’s frustrating because everyone says, ‘Oh, great. Everything worked out.’ Well actually, no. He may as well have been expelled because he hasn’t been able to finish a college semester since.”
Miltenberg made the same point, stressing that regardless of whether the judicial outcome for his clients were positive and negative, they did not fully recover from the process.
“I’ve talked to over 100 young men. Not one of them is OK after this experience,” Miltenberg said. “Whether we have settled or gotten the student reinstated, not one of them is OK, and the result [of his legal efforts] is not having that much of an impact on how traumatized they are from the process.”
Alex said he feels especially bad about the financial stress his sexual assault expulsion has placed on his family. Even with the help of his parents, he is struggling to pay student loans on a degree that never materialized and legal bills for hiring an outside attorney to advise him on battling a crime he said he didn’t commit.
“I still live with my family. I’ll only move out in my wildest dreams… I’m just wasting my time, wasting my life, and staying at my parents’ house. I can’t grow up and be an adult and start my life. That’s the most depressing and frustrating thing.”
Every person interviewed said their family had spent at least tens of thousands of dollars for legal and/or mental health counseling in response to the sexual assault allegation.
One mother said she and her husband had already incurred six-figures worth of debt.
Alex said his family has already accrued at least $30,000 in debt, but he’s determined to have justice—so much so that he worked three jobs this past summer.
“I did construction Monday through Friday. I coached Crossfit with private clients at the gym. I did security at casinos over the weekend. All the money has gone to student loans and the lawyers. My parents had to dip into their retirement to help pay for it. I feel guilty. I feel terrible. It’s just really depressing.”
Alex has filed a federal complaint against his school, and he said the school has filed a motion to dismiss. He is waiting, and hoping, he will get his day in court to fully clear his name.
“I’m embarrassed. I’m ashamed. A lot of people I went to school with are very supportive and said, ‘No one believes I did it.’ But you can’t help but wonder what certain people must think.”
*Names have been changed to protect interviewees’ privacy