LAWRENCE —The student, identified in a federal lawsuit against Rider only as "John Doe," was disciplined in December after a campus administrative panel found him at fault for an alleged sexual assault of two females student in a dorm room.

The student, however, was never prosecuted, despite an investigation by campus and municipal police and the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office.

The lawsuit says the female students gave conflicting and contradictory statements to police, with their stories going from a kissing and heavy petting incident to one of forced penetration and attempted oral sodomy.

The lawsuit says the school, "in a rush to convict" the freshman student and "brand him a sexual predator," didn't allow his attorney to ask the victim any questions during the disciplinary hearing and considered him "guilty until proven innocent."

The lawsuit is just the latest example of university campuses across the country trying to navigate federal laws on sexual discrimination while balancing the due process rights of the accused.

Critics, depending on which side of the issue they stand, say institutions of higher education are either going too far in siding with students who allege rape or they're not doing enough to protect them.

Samantha Harris, director of policy research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said there are more than 100 similar lawsuits pending around the country as a result of Title IX, which prohibits sexual discrimination at schools receiving federal funds.

"Sexual assault is considered a form of sexual discrimination covered by Title IX so schools can be held liable under Title IX for failing to address sexual assault on campus" or risk losing those funds, she said.

Harris said schools were encouraged by the Department of Education to "take a more aggressive stance towards addressing sexual assault including lowering the standard of evidence in hearing cases," which included discouraging cross-examination.

The Department of Education began to investigate schools for non-compliance with Title IX, creating what Harris called "a climate of fear and pressure" at universities.

As a result, according to Harris, university administrations have "adopted procedures that make it easier to find students guilty whether or not they are actually guilty."

She says many accused students, "primarily male students because they're the ones typically accused in these cases, are coming forward and saying 'I was expelled or suspended without any sort of meaningful process whatsoever.'"

According to Know Your IX, a victims advocacy group, many victims of sexual assault find "campus reporting is their only option" because they fear that police, prosecutors and juries won't believe them or they fear retaliation by the attacker or ridicule by peers.

The group also says that many victims feel the criminal justice system does not look out for their needs: "In contrast, schools, unlike criminal courts, are focused on the victim and are required to make sure he or she has everything they need to continue their education."

Rider University spokeswoman Kristine Brown said federal law prohibits her from discussing any specific cases.

"The university is committed to fostering an environment of mutual respect throughout its community as reflected in its Mission, policies, and values," Brown said. "Sexual assault, harassment or discrimination of any kind is not acceptable at Rider. We are confident that our anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy and processes are fair, equitable and impartial."

The incident at Rider

The lawsuit says John Doe met the alleged victims Oct. 18, 2015, when he and three friends returned from an off-campus party. The plaintiff says he was the only one not drunk because he was the designated driver.

He met the two females "who were, for some reason, in the boys' restroom."

The lawsuit says the female students had been drinking but not incapacitated or slurring their words.

He and his friend asked the females if they wanted to return to their dorm room and they agreed.

The lawsuit says the other couple kissed for about 10 minutes until John Doe's friend passed out and the she left the room.

John Doe and his alleged victim also paired up and kissed on the bed. The lawsuit says he remained fully clothed and she was on top of him; she voluntarily removed her shirt and bra.  He touched her breasts while she fondled his genitals through his pants. He sucked on her neck, giving her a hickey, he said.

The encounter ended when her friend banged on the door. She got dressed and left.

The lawsuit says campus police were called hours later around dawn because one of alleged victim's friends believed that her backwards blouse and hickey "indicated a non-consensual encounter."

"But for her friends' persistent and misguided prodding, Jane Roe would not have reported her consensual encounter" to police, the lawsuit says.

When the alleged victim spoke to police, she admitted she "insisted on staying" with John Doe after her friend left. She told police that while she did not give "100 percent consent to the situation" she "did not fully deny it either," the lawsuit says.

Her friend's statement was "contradictory and defied commonsense" because she claimed the dorm room was "very dark" but yet could see John Doe engage in "violent touching" her friend," the lawsuit says, adding that the friend did nothing to help her friend who she supposedly thought was in trouble.

Story changes

Later in the evening, the females spoke to Lawrence police and told different stories, the lawsuit says.

The female who John Doe had been kissing claimed that he had tried to force her mouth onto his penis. Her friend claimed for the first time that he had penetrated her with his finger and touched her breast and that she had to force her way out of the room, the lawsuit says.

John Doe's lawsuit says his disciplinary hearing was conducted by a panel of three administrators. There was no document detailing the charges against him and there was no written opinion issued when the panel found him "responsible" or when they denied his appeal.

During the hearing, he was denied access to medical reports detailing the victim's injuries and wasn't allowed to ask questions about her medical treatment, although the victim was allowed to testify about her medical treatment without providing details, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit is asking for for the school to "reverse and expunge" the incident from his record. It also seeks unspecified monetary damages to be determined at trial.

The lawsuit says the expulsion has had an adverse effect on his "academic and career prospects, earning potential and reputation" as well as "emotional stress and damages to his emotional and physical well-being."

The plaintiff is represented by Lee Vartan of Holland & Knight in Manhattan.

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