Student sues College over expulsion

by Sunny Drescher | 1/29/19 3:00am

A lawsuit was filed in New Hampshire federal district court against the Trustees of Dartmouth College on Jan. 7, 2019, alleging the College’s “unjust” and “unlawful” expulsion of a student accused of perpetrating sexual violence against a classmate. 

In December 2018, a Title IX investigation concluded that in May 2018, John Doe — whose name was redacted in his court filings to protect his privacy — had nonconsensual sexual intercourse with Sally Smith — name also redacted — and accordingly violated Standard III of the College’s Standards of Conduct, which prohibits students from engaging in sexual misconduct. Doe was subsequently expelled from the College because of this finding, though he is appealing both the investigative conclusion as well as his expulsion, citing problems with the investigative process.

Doe alleges that the investigation did not adequately afford him due process in that it did not fully consider potentially exculpatory evidence he sought to provide. Doe also alleges that the national and campus political and social climate regarding sexual violence influenced the investigation’s finding and the sanctions taken against him.

The complaint notes recent criticism of sexual assault disciplinary proceedings in both national media and by the federal government. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education installed new guidelines for Title IX policy in 2017 that recommended the standard of evidence to be the same across disciplinary procedures at universities. These guidelines asserted that colleges should not place a lower burden of proof on the plaintiff in sexual violence cases than in other college disciplinary proceedings. Additionally, new Title IX regulations were rolled out in late 2018, emphasizing the due process rights of the accused in sexual assault cases. These new regulations signal a shift from Obama-era Title IX policies that gave more weight to the burden placed on the victims in such cases. 

“Dartmouth felt undue pressure from the federal government, campus student groups, the national media, and alumni donors to support female reporters by finding male responding parties responsible for committing sexual assault,” Doe said in the complaint. 

Per Doe’s complaint, the alleged incident occurred during Green Key weekend in May 2018. Doe was off-campus at the time and was returning to campus for the weekend. Though he stayed with other friends Thursday and Friday nights, Doe slept in Smith’s room on Saturday, his final night on campus. Doe asserts that the two of them watched a movie and engaged in consensual kissing and other sexual activity, excluding sexual intercourse. He recalled Smith leaving her room, stating that she needed to go help a friend. The next morning, Doe said he collected his belongings and left Smith’s room. 

That same afternoon, Smith emailed Dartmouth’s Title IX office, and the next day she met with Title IX coordinator Kristi Clemens and filed an official report. The report was subsequently relayed to the Hanover Police Department, which then began its own investigation. In accordance with Dartmouth’s Unified Disciplinary Procedures for Sexual Assault, Dartmouth’s Title IX investigation was put on hold while police completed their evidence collection. The Hanover police cleared Dartmouth to continue with its investigation in early July 2018. 

Doe was notified on July 5, 2018 by director of judicial affairs Katharine Strong that he was party to an ongoing investigation based on Smith’s allegations that he had nonconsensual sexual intercourse with her. A no contact order between Doe and Smith was issued a week later. 

Over the course of the investigation, which lasted approximately four months, Doe and Smith were interviewed by an independent investigator. Both Doe and Smith provided text messages to the investigator, but Doe alleges in the complaint that Smith omitted or deleted several messages that provide more context for their interactions that weekend. 

Additionally, Doe claims that he took a polygraph test that did not indicate deception when he was asked if he had engaged in sexual intercourse with Smith during Green Key weekend, to which he responded in the negative. However, Dartmouth deemed the results of his polygraph test inadmissible to the investigation. The complaint asserts that Dartmouth’s role in deciding what constitutes evidence “negates any notion that the Investigator was independent of Dartmouth.” 

Furthermore, Doe alleges that he was alerted late in the investigation that Smith had provided to Hanover police the clothes she was wearing on the night of the alleged incident. After Doe found out that Smith’s clothes were undergoing forensic testing, he asked that the Dartmouth investigation be put on hold until the release of the test results. Though the College acquiesced to this request, Doe was later notified that the results of the forensic tests would not be shared with Dartmouth and that the College’s investigation would resume. 

On Nov. 29, 2018, Doe was alerted that he was found responsible for violating Standard III of the Unified Disciplinary Procedures. He was then given five days to provide a statement to the sanctioning committee that would determine appropriate sanctions against him. Following Doe and Smith’s statements to the sanctioning committee and after Doe submitted a second sanctioning statement to the committee, Doe learned that he was to be expelled from the College. 

Doe appealed both the finding and his expulsion, citing that the investigation did not consider Smith’s omission of text messages and potential to have obscured other evidence, did not consider Doe’s polygraph test, did not consider inconsistencies in Smith’s retelling of the sequence of events and failed to follow up on any of the aforementioned alleged issues. Doe filed a formal appeal with the College on Dec. 19 and the complaint for the lawsuit was subsequently filed on Jan. 7.

Proceedings in the lawsuit are ongoing and the case has been assigned to Judge Joseph N. Laplante.

College spokesperson Diana Lawrence declined to comment on the lawsuit. Doe’s counsel did not return a request for comment by press time.