Good grades, good home gets college student profiled as rapist, claims lawsuit

Being a valedictorian from a "good family" helped get a California student blamed for an alleged rape by a bizarre, college tribunal that critics claim is part of an overzealous culture of blaming men for hookups that go awry, according to a lawsuit.

A former Occidental College student known only as "John Doe" has sued the Los Angeles school after it found him "responsible" for an alleged Sept. 8, 2013, rape local police could not substantiate ever happened. The student was expelled after the liberal arts school's investigation, despite offering strong text message evidence that the encounter with another first-year Occidental student was consensual.

“When any student is expelled from college with a sexual assault finding on his or her record, that’s devastating,” Robert Shibley, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is representing the student, told “So first he’s trying to clear his name. It’s difficult to move on until he does that. It’s a very difficult position to be in and that’s why it needs to be taken so seriously.”


The unidentified student turned to Shibley's group for help after filing a lawsuit seeking to invalidate Occidental’s internal findings in the Superior Court of California as John Doe tries to piece his life back together. The suit, which claims John Doe's due process rights were violated, charges that a faculty member and anti-rape activist coaxed the alleged victim into making baseless accusations.

"[John Doe] fits the profile of other rapists on campus in that he had a high GPA in high school, was his class valedictorian, was on [a sports] team, and was from a good family," the suit quotes Occidental Sociology Prof. Danielle Dirks, who co-founded the school's Sexual Assault Coalition, telling the woman, who was initially reluctant to accuse the man of rape.

Earlier this year, the White House issued a report on sexual assaults on college campuses and called on schools to become more vigilant about the issue. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) estimates that a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year, while the White House Council on Women and Girls — co-authors of the White House report — estimates nearly 1-in-5 women will be sexually assaulted during her time in college.

But the fact that campus rape is a legitimate social problem does not mean John Doe is guilty, according to Shibley. He said Occidental misapplied its own sexual misconduct policy, which was implemented last August, a month before the university settled with at least 10 of 37 current and former students who alleged that the school repeatedly mishandled sexual assault accusations.

The women, all of whom were represented by high-profile women's rights attorney Gloria Allred, were among those who alleged in a federal civil rights complaint that Occidental deliberately discouraged victims from reporting sexual assaults, misled students about their rights, retaliated against whistle-blowers and doled out minor punishments to assailants who in some cases allegedly struck again.

Shibley, meanwhile, said an external adjudicator hired by the school to investigate the September 2013 incident concluded that the female student did consent to sex, but that that consent was invalid since she was intoxicated.

Furthermore, text messages between the two, including one in which the woman asked whether John Doe had a condom, should be considered as a “smoking gun” in the case, Shibley said.

“We’re responsible for the decisions we make while we’re drunk, just like someone who drinks and decides to get behind the wheel of a car,” he said. “She asked if he had a condom; she also told one of her friends that she was going to have sex as well. It seems pretty clear she knew what was going on.”

Shibley is calling on Occidental to reconsider its finding, adding that the applied definition of incapacitation in this case would make both parties guilty of sexually assaulting one another since both had been drinking. Shibley said attorneys for Occidental had failed to reply by May 16, as they previously promised.

“They said they’d get back to us and we haven’t heard anything,” he said. “It isn’t that difficult to see that something went wrong here.”

Occidental College spokesman Jim Tranquada said federal privacy laws precluded him from commenting on individual cases, even in civil matters.

"Student disciplinary cases are administrative proceedings, not criminal proceedings," Tranquada wrote in an email. "The purpose of a disciplinary hearing is to determine whether or not college policy has been violated. The college applies the preponderance of evidence standard as mandated by the U.S. Department of Education.

Under Title IX, colleges and universities must address and seek to remedy complaints of sexual misconduct, whether or not law enforcement has been contacted. This is true even if there is an active criminal investigation into the case."

An estimated 1 in 5 women is sexually assaulted in college, President Obama told reporters during a news conference in January. Months later, the U.S. Department of Education said in May that no fewer than 55 colleges and universities — including Occidental College — are being investigated for possible mishandling of sexual assault complaints. But “changing the pernicious culture” that allows students — overwhelmingly female — to be victimized is no easy task, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board noted last month.

“Schools are not law enforcement agencies; they’re not set up to conduct investigations or hold trials or render verdicts, yet they are required to do so under federal law,” according to the May 12 editorial. “In establishing procedures to deal with sexual assault, they must be sure that victims are treated with respect, that complaints are taken seriously and pursued vigorously – and that the due process rights of the accused are not abridged.”