Swarthmore settles with student expelled in sexual assault case
December 3, 2014 | Philadelphia Inquirer
Swarthmore College has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by an expelled student in a case that questioned whether the school's policies for handling sexual assault allegations were biased against men.
The young man at its center - an honors student and former high school class president from Durham, N.C. - had maintained that he was wrongfully found guilty of sexual misconduct by a school eager to quash criticism that it did not take assault allegations seriously.
Neither the lawyer for the student, identified in court documents only as John Doe, nor the college would discuss the terms of their agreement, citing a confidentiality clause. But in a joint motion to dismiss the case filed last month, the school acknowledged that new information cast doubt on whether the panel of faculty, students, and staff that heard the case was impartial in making its decision.
"The college agrees that the new information raises sufficient questions about the fairness of the hearing to warrant vacating the panel's findings and sanction," the motion reads.
College spokeswoman Alisa Giardinelli declined to discuss what that information was, but said Swarthmore has always sought to apply its policies in a fair manner.
"If we are made aware of new information that could affect a student conduct decision, whether during the course of a lawsuit or otherwise, it is the right thing to do to reevaluate," she said.
The settlement comes amid a renewed nationwide push from victim advocates, government regulators, and even the White House for universities to respond more aggressively to sexual assaults on their campuses.
The U.S. Department of Education continues to investigate the way Swarthmore and 54 other colleges, including Temple and Pennsylvania State Universities, handle sexual assault cases.
Meanwhile, several men at schools like Temple, Vassar, Duke, and Columbia have filed suits similar to the one at Swarthmore, contending there is inherent bias in the way their institutions investigate and punish sexual assault claims.
Few colleges have grappled with both sides of the issue as publicly as Swarthmore, a highly selective school of 1,500-plus students in Delaware County. Student protests across the campus last year culminated with two women filing a highly publicized formal complaint with the Department of Education, saying they had been sexually assaulted and then ignored.
It was in that environment that the young man identified as John Doe said he became a scapegoat. Less than two weeks after the federal complaint, he said, the school reopened a complaint filed against him nearly a year earlier.
It centered on his actions during two sexual encounters with a classmate in 2011. While neither involved intercourse, the man and his accuser later had sex, which she said she initiated.
The young man's lawyer,Patricia Hamill, contended that Swarthmore violated many of its own policies in determining her client's guilt and expelling him.
Since the lawsuit's filing, Swarthmore has overhauled several of those policies, most notably its practice of putting cases of alleged sexual misconduct before a board with little background in law or investigative technique.
Now, a retired state Supreme Court justice hired by the school hears all sexual misconduct cases, and the college determines punishments for those found guilty.
Under the agreement, Swarthmore has agreed to lift its expulsion of Hamill's client. However, should he seek to reenroll at the college, the case that led to his dismissal would have to be reevaluated.
As for her client, Hamill said that he is currently enrolled as a senior at another school and has no plans to return to Swarthmore.
"We're pleased that Swarthmore College has agreed to vacate the findings and sanctions against our client," she said.