Last month, a former student filed a civil action against the College for alleged Title IX violations.
In addition to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the plaintiff and his lawyer, Stacey Elin Rossi, claim that the College failed to comply with the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, the Massachusetts Unfair and Deceptive Practices Act and the right to privacy under Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). It also asserts that the College did not follow principles of “good faith, fair dealing, due process and fundamental fairness” and committed “negligence, assault and defamation.”
The lawsuit refers to the plaintiff as John Doe for privacy. Doe was a full time student at the College from September 2011 to spring 2016, when he was scheduled to graduate.
From 2013 to 2015, according to the complaint, Doe was in an exclusive romantic relationship with a former student who became an employee of the College, referred to as Jane Smith in this article for privacy. Doe claims damages resulting from allegedly harmful actions by the College that resulted in him not receiving his degree and have produced consequences to his academic and career future, as well as earning potential and reputation.
According to the civil action filing, Smith slapped Doe and took his phone after an incident at a party where he was dancing with someone else. After this event, Smith allegedly emailed former Dean of the College Sarah Bolton, stating that she had written essays for Doe in violation of the College’s Honor Code.
The action states the faculty chair of the Honor Committee should have been contacted, not Bolton, per the terms of the faculty handbook at the time. Bolton alleg-edly did not direct the information the employee provided to the Honor Committee and, according to the action, “Bolton allowed her impartiality to be compromised, demonstrating an unfair bias against John.” The action also states that Bolton, by not taking action to discipline Smith, ignored the issue a of a relationship between a student and employee, which College’s employee handbook says “are in almost all cases inappropriate.”
According to the action, Bolton texted “private educational information” regarding Doe to Smith. Doe claims this is a violation of privacy under FERPA and state law. The action also cites two other alleged communications between Bolton and Smith that Doe claims are a violation of FERPA.
The College’s Honor Committee held a hearing and Doe was charged with violating the honor code, in one of three allegations. The committee recommended expulsion and the action claims that if Bolton had not influenced the committee, the outcome of the decision would have been different. Doe was eventually cleared of accusations in a hearing that Bolton did not sit in on.
Doe, through his attorney, sent Smith a cease and desist letter that copied Bolton. The complaint states that Doe met with Bolton and the College Counsel and “expressed deep concern that Williams was protecting an employee who had assaulted and harassed him.” According to the lawsuit, no action was taken after this. The College put a mutual no-contact order in place between Doe and Smith. Rossi says she then made a formal Title IX complaint against the College, Bolton and Smith. Bolton then allegedly sent an email to Doe indicating that she would like to meet with him to discuss the Title IX complaint that was issued, and that the Title IX coordinator, Toya Camacho, and she would oversee it.
“Bolton’s email begs the question why Williams persists in allowing such a partial school official, expressly named in the Title IX complaint to the Title IX coordinator as failing to adequately address John’s concerns about the dating violence and harassment, to take the lead with John’s Title IX complaint,” the complain says.
The complaint says Doe emailed Bolton back asking if she could recuse herself from these proceedings. She allegedly indicated that the email was in reference to the cease and desist letter that the employee received and not the Title IX complaint, and also that she was willing to let Camacho handle the complaint and to recuse herself from it.
According to the action, Smith issued a counter-complaint against Doe that stated, “he ‘displayed abusive behavior towards her during the past two years.’” Doe then allegedly emailed Allyson Kurker, the College’s outside investigaor, who eventually directed him to Camacho, asking why there was or wasn’t an investigation running on the Title IX complaint made against him. Camacho responded by stating, according to the action, “‘Title IX protects employees as well as students. Ms. Kurker is investigating both your complaint against [Smith] and [Smith’s] complaint against you. The college’s policies prohibit harassment by students and by employees.’”
Doe responded with an email, according to the action, stating that he did not get a clear answer as to why the employee’s complaint was not considered an act of re-taliation and asking if that could be clarified. Camacho allegedly responded by stating that the employee can file a complaint but the investigation decides whether or not it is legitimate.
The action says that Title IX does not protect employees against students. It states, “The only context in which a Title IX complaint by an employee may be contemplated is when there is a complaint of employment discrimination filed against recipients of federal financial assistance, i.e. the educational institution. Therefore, [Smith] could complain against Williams College but not against John.” If employees file Title IX sexual harassment complaints with Office of Civil Rights, they are supposed to be processed with the Procedures for Complaints of Employment Discrimination Filed Against Recipients of Federal Financial Assistance.
Doe walked at graduation but was not handed his degree. He also asked Camacho if he could receive transcripts for interviews in June, and she allegedly forwarded his request to Bolton who, according to the complaint, had still not released them in August. In September, Marlene Sandstrom, who took over as dean of the College after Bolton departed in June, allegedly stated that parties in sexual misconduct cases could not receive transcripts or tapes for interviews and only sent two out of the three of them. The above messages were forwarded to the College Counsel, which stated that the College’s procedures for sexual misconduct disciplinary proceedings do not give interview transcripts to the parties involved, and that they are not given to an adjudication panel, and are not part of the record that eventually makes the decisions. The complaint says that, under FERPA, Doe has the right to inspect his educational records but not receive them.
Doe allegedly received the report in September and it stated that he was being investigated for the following violations: 2015–2016 Relationship Abuse policy, 2013–2014 Student Code of Conduct provision regarding non-consensual sex and the 2014–2015 Dating and Domestic Violence Policy. The report allegedly did not include the 2013-2014 Student Code of Conduct. Doe submitted a response that Rossi says “attacked the report for being biased against John as incorrect policies were applied, critical policies were not included as was John’s Title IX complaint letter, statements from a partial Dean were included, and the term ‘testify’ was used to describe [Smith’s] statements.”
After the response to the investigator’s report period had expired, Sandstrom allegedly wrote to Doe saying that the report stated the relevant College policies in effect and specific relationship abuse wording was added to the code of conduct in October of 2015 and that “the existing code of conduct could not be applied to the types of misbehavior that have been alleged.”
The action states that Sandstrom’s statement is not an accurate representation because the changes in language were monumental changes to the policy.
Doe and Smith both produced second written responses to the new materials that they presented in their first responses. Doe was allegedly not given the employee’s second response.
A hearing panel met consisting of Assistant Dean of International Student Services Ninah Pretto, Vice President for Campus Life Stephen Klass and Administrative Director of Divisional Affairs Aaron Gordon. They allegedly found Doe responsible for “violating the Code of Conduct by engaging in non-consensual sex.” The action says, “there was woefully insufficient evidence to sustain the Hearing Panel’s findings.”
Violations were cited for the following counts: Violation of 20 U.S.C., Breach of Con-tract, Breach of the Implied Covenant of Good Faith and Fair Dealing, Estoppel and Reliance, Massachusetts Unfair and Deceptive Practices Act, Negligence, Violation of Fundamental Fairness, Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, Assault, Defamation and Vio-lation of Privacy and Injunctive Relief and Declaratory Judgment.
It requests that if “this court find no remedy at law available to the Plaintiff, Plaintiff pleads unjust Enrichment against Defendant” and asks for “approximately $32,300 in the form of payments towards four years’ tuition, costs and fees paid by Plaintiff or on his behalf.”
Rossi she said that she would not comment on the action at this time. Bolton and Camacho both said they could not comment on an ongoing litigation because privacy is required by law.
“The College does not comment on ongoing litigation,” Mary Dettloff, media relations director for the College, said.
“The College is fully committed to addressing all aspects of sexual misconduct on campus,” Sandstrom said. “This involves a great deal of prevention work on multiple fronts, as well as an adjudication process that is equitable and holds those who harm others accountable.
I cannot comment on this specific lawsuit, not only because it is pending but also because we hold all matters of student discipline as confidential. However I can affirm that the College is committed to ensuring the safety of our community, and are continually seeking ways to further strengthen our work in sexual violence prevention and response.”