An undergraduate student is suing the University of Notre Dame in federal court, alleging the Indiana school launched a discriminatory investigation that found him guilty of stalking, dating violence, and harassment of an ex-girlfriend, then expelled him just three weeks before he was set to graduate.
Filing his suit under the pseudonym “John Doe,” the former student is asking for undisclosed damages, but first his lawyers say he just wants to be let back in.
John’s case joins dozens of other pending lawsuits nationwide alleging colleges and universities have over-corrected in recent years when it comes to the investigation of sexual assault and harassment on campus. Parroting several other suits currently making their way through the courts, the complaint alleges that in recent years Notre Dame has “created an atmosphere of institutional hostility toward accused male students.”
The investigation against John began in 2016, according to the complaint. During a year-long “intimate but tumultuous” relationship with his girlfriend, named under the alias “Jane Roe,” John says he developed depression and started having suicidal thoughts after the suicide of a colleague during a summer internship. When the couple broke up in November 2016, the suit says, Jane filed a complaint with the University, alleging John was harassing her and inundating her with texts threatening suicide.
“Rather than recognize the needs of a suicidally depressed student, the University placed her complaint in the category of its ‘Sexual Assault, Sexual Misconduct, Dating Violence, Domestic Violence, Stalking, and/or Hostile Environment Policies,’” John’s complaint alleges.
From here, John’s complaint describes a supposedly flawed, discriminatory investigation process that was “motivated on the basis of sex.” In the filing, John alleges the university ignored video evidence of the “vindictive” motives of his ex-girlfriend. (John’s complaint alleges an acquaintance filmed Jane saying, “I want to fuck up [John’s] reputation; I want to make sure he never has a girlfriend… here or anywhere…and I want him never to be able to have a social life.”) Further, John says the university allowed Jane to “cherry pick” text messages used as evidence, failed to contact witnesses supplied by John, and refused to consider the expert opinion of his therapist who, he claims, would have reported progress in John’s mental health and a complete severing of ties between him and his ex-girlfriend.
“The University’s conduct was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denied John equal access to education that Title IX is designed to protect,” the complaint states.
At an emergency hearing on Tuesday, a judge will rule on a temporary restraining order that would allow John to be readmitted in order to take his final exams and graduate.
John’s attorney Peter Agostoni and university spokesman Dennis Brown both declined to comment on the lawsuit. Jane is not a plaintiff in the suit.
John’s expulsion and lawsuit is only the most recent in a growing body of complaints from students alleging their schools’ investigations have been actively anti-male and have violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. In 2016, at least 47 students or their representatives sued schools alleging such violations, according to a database maintained by the men’s rights advocacy group Title IX For All (previously known as Boys & Men in Education and before that, A Voice for Male Students). In 2017, the University of Miami, Cornell, the University of Texas, Clemson, and Purdue University have all faced similar lawsuits. The cases are all pending.
In fact most of the reverse discrimination cases filed in recent years are still pending or have settled quietly, Kimberly Lau, an attorney who has has represented over 100 students in college disciplinary proceedings, told The Daily Beast.
“Maybe a few actually get decided by the court on the merits but they’re mostly settled. And when it’s a private institution, those settlements are confidential. You’re not going to hear about it because schools don’t want it to be public.”
Despite the secretive nature of university tribunals, court filings offer a glimpse into the rise of claims of injustice for men accused of assault or harassment on college campuses. The number of filed reverse discrimination cases has grown every year since 2011, according to Title IX For All’s data.
“It all ties back to the Dear Colleague letter from the last administration,” Lau said.
The Dear Colleague Letter was issued in 2011 by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to colleges, universities, and schools that receive federal funding to offer guidance on how schools could improve investigations of sexual assault and harassment. Critics of the 19-page message (PDF) argue that the wording is vague and doesn’t carry the power of actual law. And although it explicitly states the victim and the accused should be treated equally during an investigation, the recent flood of plaintiffs in reverse discrimination cases argue the letter has only incentivized anti-male witch hunts.
Indeed, the most recent John Doe claims just that, alleging in his complaint against Notre Dame that the Dear Colleague Letter “exerted significant pressure on colleges and universities to revamp their procedures to be more responsive to alleged victims of sexual assault, who are women in the overwhelming majority of cases.”
According to his complaint, that federal guidance, coupled with increased media scrutiny following anti-rape films like The Hunting Ground, have “minimiz[ed] the rights of male students and ensur[ed] that a female accuser’s complaints would be acted upon and found credible, even in dubious cases such as the allegations leveled at John.”