A student has sued Amherst College for denying him his diploma two weeks before graduation based on a nearly 5-year-old sexual assault allegation that his lawyer said was resolved three years ago.
John Doe, whose identity is being withheld by his lawyers, is a South African native who was accused of unwanted sexual advances on his Amherst College male roommate in December 2009.
Attorney Luke Ryan said his client took the last final exam of his college career nine weeks ago, expecting to “spend the next nine days celebrating and saying goodbye to friends in the lead up to commencement.”
Instead, Doe was informed that Amherst officials decided to subject him to additional discipline for the sexual assault allegation, which Ryan said was resolved in 2011.
Doe was told a misconduct board hearing had to take place before he could receive his degree. That hearing could come in October – at the earliest – because faculty and trustees have to vote on whether to confer him a degree, court documents state.
As a result, Doe’s life has effectively been put on hold.
“Our client is operating under an enormous amount of stress,” Ryan said in an interview with The College Fix.
Doe’s lawyers have asked the court to intervene and force campus officials to hand out the degree, but the university has responded that the court does not have jurisdiction in the matter.
Ryan said he believes intense federal pressure on universities to take a harder stance against sexual assault claims has played a role in Amherst’s decision to go after his client.
Amherst College is one of the 55 colleges and universities nationwide that is currently under scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Education regarding its handling of sexual assault allegations.
“It would appear that the pressure being exerted by the federal government is causing some schools to dispense with procedural protections that are necessary to ensure that disciplinary proceedings are fair and the outcomes of them are just,” Ryan said.
At issue is a December 2009 encounter between the two male roommates. Doe alleges the encounter was consensual. The other student, referred to in court documents as “Student A,” denies it.
“Student A tells a different story, asserting that he was raped after months of rebuffing Doe’s unwanted sexual advances,” court documents state.
After the incident, Student A turned to Pamela Stawasz, assistant director of residential life and an LGBTQIA educator, for help. She moved him out of the dorm and got him a new pair of bed sheets, court documents state.
In the spring of 2010, Doe was given a medical leave by the school. He returned to South Africa to deal with his acknowledged alcohol abuse and personal issues before returning to Amherst in 2011 to complete his education.
This leave, Doe’s attorneys argue, was his punishment, and resolved the sexual assault claim. But campus officials assert that their agreement with Doe, upon his return from medical leave, was that he would be on probation up until the day of his graduation.
Campus officials state in court documents that in May of this year, Student A decided to pursue charges against Doe after he learned that Doe was tapped as a “green dean” in the office of admissions.
“Student A reports that he was ‘terrified’ that Doe would be in a position in which he would interact with young, perspective students of Amherst,” court documents state.
“The perpetrator of an alleged sexual assault at Amherst College seeks to walk away, diploma in hand, without any formal adjudication of the charges against him, while the former student who experienced the assault continues to struggle with the emotional harm he reportedly caused,” the opposition memo, provided by Ryan to The College Fix, reads.
“Student A” had dropped out of Amherst in 2011 to avoid going to school with Doe. He told The Huffington Post that he believes Amherst “mishandled everything” pertaining to the original allegation in 2009, but said it appears as if they are now “making some really good decisions.”
Lawyers for Amherst College blasted Doe’s attorneys for asserting that the case was resolved, and criticized Ryan and his team’s “literally unprecedented” actions of attempting to interfere with the “student-college relationship.” They accuse Doe and his lawyers of expecting the court to “intervene into Amherst’s internal affairs” by barring Amherst from adjudicating allegations of sexual assault.
The lawsuit contends it’s too late for all this handwringing and regret.
“In hindsight, the college may not like the resolution it orchestrated. It may wish it was more sensitive to the needs of Student A,” the suit states. “It may even genuinely believe that it violated its obligations under Title IX. However, such misgivings cannot make a closed case ripe for adjudication.”
Ryan says it is unclear if the case will go to trial, especially given that most civil cases do not go to trial.
A decision regarding the plaintiff’s motion for injunctive relief – that is, a court-ordered act favored by Doe’s legal team – is expected from a judge later this week.
College Fix contributor Andrew Desiderio is a student at The George Washington University.
IMAGE: Donkey Hotey/Flickr