Ex-student says he was falsely accused of sexual harassment and was denied due process on campus
Joseph Roberts said he was denied due process on his college campus.
For the first time in five years, Joseph Roberts returned to Savannah, Georgia, his college town.
The homecoming is hard for Roberts. In fact, he is not even sure what will happen to him if he steps on campus.
“I don’t feel safe,” Roberts told ABC News’ “Nightline.”
After serving in the Navy, Roberts was on track to become the first person in his family to receive a college diploma. Instead, he received an email from his school Savannah State University that derailed his dream of graduating.
“An email came from the Office of Student Affairs,” Roberts recalled. “’You are hereby summarily suspended and if you step foot on campus, you get the threat of expulsion and arrest.’ A couple minutes later, there was a campus-wide email alert with — my picture was almost like a mug shot. ‘If you see me — immediately report to Public Safety.’”
Roberts said the email was sent after two students filed complaints, which Roberts called false allegations, of verbal and online sexual harassment.
According to documents obtained by ABC News, he was suspended the same day the first complaint was made.
Roberts claimed no one reached out to him, interviewed him or asked him what happened before the email went out and that he was “immediately” found guilty.
“Just off the mere accusation. Done. Done,” he said.
Roberts said he and others like him have been denied due process on campus because of Title IX, the groundbreaking federal civil rights law enacted in 1972 that was meant to improve equality in education, strengthen women’s sports programs and provide requirements for how schools respond to allegations of sexual misconduct towards students.
In 2011 and 2014, the Obama Administration issued guidance documents designed to toughen the rules protecting students against sexual assault and harassment.
Many survivors' organizations celebrated this move by the Obama Administration, but controversial groups have argued that those Obama-era guidelines have caused an overcorrection, making schools quick to accept allegations of sexual misconduct and sometimes unfairly punish the accused.
Roberts said he hit rock bottom after what happened to him.
“I woke up not responsive, surrounded by EMTs and firefighters with an empty bottle of alcohol and a bottle of pills ... suicide attempt. That was the worst,” he said.
Under the Trump administration, which Roberts supports, organizations pushing for the rights of mostly male students accused of sexual misconduct are receiving unprecedented attention — as well as a huge shot of momentum from a debate that played out in front of the nation: the day Christine Blasey Ford testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing for now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, during which he also testified.
Ford, who has accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct, testified about the alleged attack that occurred one night when they were teenagers, and that same day, Kavanaugh swore before the committee that he was innocent.
The day reawakened a painful debate. And at a rally after Ford’s testimony, President Donald Trump said, “It’s a very scary time for young men in America.”
“We felt like somebody was finally recognizing,” Cynthia Garrett, a co-president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), told “Nightline” of her reaction to Trump’s statement.
Garrett also sits on the board of Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (SAVE). Both FACE and SAVE say that they believe male students accused of sexual misconduct don’t receive fair treatment from their schools.
“On campus, you have this whole ‘believe the victim’ ideology, which in my opinion is OK if you’re counseling somebody, but when you’re talking about investigation, there has to be objectivity,” Garrett said. “I started to hear about these cases. People told me that the students weren’t allowed to see evidence against them or even know what they’re accused of before they’re questioned. I said, ‘This is America. You can’t do that.’”
Although Title IX has been in effect for nearly 50 years, the regulations for schools responding to allegations of sexual misconduct were strengthened under President Barack Obama, promising strict enforcement of Title IX’s guidance on how to handle claims of sexual misconduct.
But after Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos entered office, she scrapped the Obama-era changes.
As part of a series of listening sessions on Title IX guidelines on sexual harassment on college campuses, DeVos met with members of sexual assault survivor groups, as well as advocates for the accused, including Garrett.
“I can talk until I'm blue in the face about all the stories I've heard, but nobody really responds. Until you can see somebody testify or until you can see them tell their story, it's very easy to disregard,” Garrett said.
Joseph Roberts was one of the students Garrett brought along to the session to share his story.
“Title IX is supposed to protect students, and, if you are accused, you’re supposed to be given certain rights that I just wasn’t given,” Roberts said.
Savannah State University told ABC News that they could not comment on any student’s case specifically, but that “they give every student due process” in accordance with Title IX.
Acting as his own attorney, Roberts sued the university, but the case was dismissed. However, he completed his degree online and is now enrolled in a California law school.
He said it was a “big deal” to be able to tell DeVos his story. “Not just because of the situation, just because of where I was at in that stage of my recovery from this,” Roberts said. “The only thing I could do is present my story. I just hope and pray that she listens.”
Two weeks after the session, DeVos announced those rollbacks to the Obama administration’s implementation of Title IX guidelines
Further proposed changes, which were leaked to the media, would not only limit liability on universities, but would require victims to present stronger evidence that a sexual assault occurred.
The Department of Education has declined to comment on any potential changes, saying that nothing has been finalized. But it was a definitive turn in the tide for Garrett and her cause.
“My favorite book and movie growing up was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I feel very strongly that you can’t ruin somebody’s life based on nothing,” Garrett said.
However, opponents of Garrett and her groups say the organizations Garrett supports have a troubling core.
“I think that these groups have way overblown the impact of their issue and their concerns. Between 2 percent and 8 percent of all sexual assaults that are reported are false,” Jess Davidson, the executive director of End Rape on Campus (EROC) told “Nightline.” “I think that these groups certainly seem to be more concerned with poking holes in survivors' stories than talking about good policy and talking about a way that we can move forward in a manner that's truly fair and equitable.”
Some critics claim these groups fighting for the rights of those accused of sexual misconduct use male grievance propaganda and blame the women's movement for hurting equality.
Garrett says her problem is, "It’s this radical ideology that treats all men as potential rapists, and I just don’t see that."
Shiwali Patel, a former attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, told “Nightline,” “One in five undergraduate women will be sexually assaulted on college campuses, one in five. And of those, 88 percent are not reported. Now, that is what the Department of Education should be paying attention to.”
“I came into an administration — this was the Obama administration — that recognized and understood the many ways that students are impacted by discrimination based on sex and gender in schools and they cared,” Patel said. “There were opportunities for survivors to be heard and for advocates who worked with survivors of sexual violence to be heard.”
Patel said she doesn’t feel the Trump administration cares about survivors in a similar way and, she said, that’s why she quit.
“It was troubling because what I saw was so much more access to the administration for groups that worked with accused students than for groups that worked with survivors,” she said. “I've heard more sympathy expressed for accused students of sexual assault than I had for survivors by political appointees.”
Patel said she believes the now revoked Title IX guidelines gave the accused due process.
“Yes it does. The 2011 and 2014 guidance documents that DeVos rescinded last September explicitly stated that Title IX does protect the due process rights of students. But something that we're not talking about are the due process rights of complainants, of survivors of sexual violence that are also not being recognized,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told ABC News they met with a variety of groups on both sides of the issue and their focus is “restoring due process and ensuring equality for all students.”
“The people look at you different. When something like this happens, it affects me. It just felt like it just put me in a hole,” said Roberts.
"The new regulations that the Department's putting out would indicate that they don't want there to be accountability," Davidson said, "They want it to be easier for people to get away with sexual violence."
This story is featured on Friday's edition of ABC News' "Start Here" podcast.
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