A male student at the University of Maine at Farmington who was accused of sexual misconduct by several women is suing the university system, saying he was also the victim of sexual assault and that the school discriminated against him because of his gender.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Bangor, claims “gender inequities in the university’s implementation of Title IX and the creation of a hostile environment.” Title IX is a federal law preventing gender discrimination and harassment, including sexual violence, in education.

The lawsuit also says the student was denied due process when he was suspended without a hearing in response to a new allegation that surfaced after he had been cleared by the university in an earlier case.

“One of our highest priorities is the protection of our students and the campus community,” said Dan Demeritt, director of public affairs for the UMaine System, in a statement. “Equally important is our respect for students’ legal rights to due process. We have been properly balancing both and the university will vigorously defend its action in this matter.”

The university system is already facing criticism from students who say they are victims of sexual assault and unhappy with how the federal law has been implemented. In January, the Bangor Daily News reported that two female students at UMaine Farmington had accused the university of mishandling their cases. One of those women’s cases involved the male student who filed the lawsuit.

Universities across the country are grappling with how to balance the rights of victims in campus sexual assault cases with due process for the accused, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has said she plans to strengthen due process rights.

In the last three months, class action lawsuits by accused students in California and Michigan are forcing officials in those states to reconsider the rights of students charged with misconduct.

The University of Maine System does not compile an annual Title IX report and numbers of incidents, investigations and outcomes were not immediately available Wednesday. However, the case filed Monday is currently the only Title IX lawsuit involving the system be filed within the last year, Demeritt said.

The lawsuit cites a case in Massachusetts, where a federal appeals court recently found that a student accused of assaulting and harassing his girlfriend was deprived of due process rights when administrators suspended him without first holding an official hearing.

The Maine suit does not name the male student, who is referred to as “John Doe,” or any of the women who accused him of sexual assault.

Francis Bigelow, an attorney for the male student, declined to comment on the case.

The suit says that in fall 2017, “John Doe” was dating a female student who reported to Farmington police that he sexually assaulted her. Police did not prosecute after determining the woman had falsely accused the male student because of guilt over having another boyfriend, the suit alleges.

Initially, the university’s Title IX investigator cleared the male student of sexual harassment and sexual assault accusations, although she did find him guilty of harassment and stalking.

When the woman appealed the finding, it went to a Student Conduct Code Committee, which reversed the investigator’s decision, and the male student was suspended. His lawsuit claims the committee, comprised of four women and one man, was biased against him.

A different appeals panel ultimately cleared the male student of the sexual assault finding, saying the committee’s hearing had been “improperly stained” by allegations against the student from a second woman. Those allegations had been deemed unfounded by the Title IX investigator, and including them in the hearing suggested a pattern of sexual misconduct that biased the committee, the panel said.

Despite the finding, the university did not allow the male student to return to his lifeguard job at the university pool or attend a dance club he belonged to in order to protect the second woman, the suit said. After pressure from the male student’s parents, the university agreed to a settlement in Oct. 2018 and paid him a tuition refund for the 2017-18 school year, lost wages from his job and legal fees.

Then, in January 2019, “John Doe’s” ex-girlfriend and told their stories to the Bangor Daily News, resulting in a series of articles documenting how the university handled their cases and prompting UMF to say it would make changes to the way it handles them in the future.

Nicole Bissonette, an attorney for the two women, did not respond to phone messages left at her office Wednesday.

The newspaper’s stories included interviews with four women who said they had been sexually assaulted or harassed by the male student and two additional women who said he verbally harassed them or friends about sex.

In March, the male student was notified he would again be suspended and prevented from going to his job or classes because a new Title IX complaint had been filed against him.

The male student had filed a report with the university claiming that woman had raped him. He said that report was not investigated.

In defending the second suspension, the university said multiple allegations had been brought against “John Doe” and they had reason to believe he was a “potential threat to campus safety,” the suit said, and that the male student has been in limbo since March with no scheduled hearings or deadlines in the case.

Last month, his attorney sent a letter to the system citing a Massachusetts ruling that a university was required to grant a hearing to a student prior to suspending.

He asked the university allow “John Doe” to return to campus and finish his classes, something the university said it is still reviewing.

 

 


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