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Georgia Lawmaker Sues DOE to Guard Rights of College Students Accused of Sexual Assault

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Georgia Rep. Earl Ehrhart has challenged the Obama administration’s orders on how to handle allegations of sexual assault on college campuses for the same reason he threatened to stop Georgia Tech’s state funding over the school’s policy on investigating allegations of student wrongdoing.

“Even third graders know you’re innocent until proven guilty” is how the longest-serving Republican in the Georgia State House explained his legal theory to the College Fix.

Ehrhart and his wife have filed suit against the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights on behalf of Virginia Ehrhart’s son, who is a student at Georgia Tech.

Ehrhart said he and his wife are afraid her son, and other male students, could be hurt by what he described as an unconstitutional policy on the investigation of alleged campus sex crimes.

The Ehrharts’ suit calls out the DOE’s “Dear Colleague” letters that Ehrhart said could result in male college students being “wrongly accused and found responsible” of sexual misconduct.

It claims the Dear Colleague letters have “aggressively dictated how colleges and universities handle sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus…causing schools to brand more students ‘rapists’ based on the excessively low ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard” rather than what is usually required in college disciplinary hearings.

The suit states that low level of evidence equates to a 50.1 percent probability of guilt, rather than the “clear and convincing evidence” that is usually demanding in a hearing.

The suit says the Dear Colleague letters also mandate accusers in sexual assault cases are able to appeal not-guilty findings and prevent the accused student from challenging his accuser during the hearing.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported schools that fail to comply with the DOE guidance could face investigation and lose federal funding.

The Office for Civil Rights has more than 200 sexual-violence cases at 178 colleges and universities under review.

In their lawsuit, Ehrhart and his wife claim to have “heard countless stories of young men being accused, investigated, and subsequently expelled from Georgia colleges and universities without being provided appropriate due process protections.”

Ehrhart said he is worried that his wife’s son and other men on campus could be charged with sexual crimes or harassment and not have a chance to defend themselves. The result, he said, could be lost tuition money at best, and ruined careers and lives at worst.

“I’m worried about their safety and their access to their constitutional rights,” he said.

“You cannot make a law just because you’re some bureaucrat that lives in a hole in Washington, D.C., and you have a whim,” Ehrhart told WABE-FM. “You don’t get to threaten the federal funds of the taxpayers of this nation to the universities and colleges in the country.”

The Department of Education has declined to comment on the suit.

This is not the first time Ehrhart, who chairs the Georgia House’s higher education budget committee, has taken on the way college and university administrators handle the investigation of students.

If history is to repeat itself, or at least rhyme, Ehrhart’s latest effort will have an impact on what has become the status quo.

In large part because of Rep. Ehrhart’s pressure, the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents ordered a statewide change in the way allegations of sexual misconduct are dealt with. Rather than letting schools decide campus-by-campus how to handle those cases, the new USG policy goes into effect July 1.

Ehrhart accused Georgia Tech of mishandling student investigations during a House higher education budget committee meeting in January and called for the resignation of Tech president Bud Peterson.

Specifically, Ehrhart pointed out what he considered to be violations of due process involving members of a fraternity who were accused of shouting racial slurs at an African-American woman.

The Phi Delta Theta fraternity and its 100 members were put on “suspension in abeyance,” even though the window through which the woman claimed the frat members were yelling had been sealed tight for years.

Alluding to the movie Animal House, Ehrhart said the fraternity has been put on “double-secret probation,” and put the school on notice — if the policy wasn’t changed to protect the due process rights of the accused, Georgia Tech would lose state funding.

“If you can’t protect students, don’t come looking for money,” he said at the end of the hearing in January.

The AP reported Kate Napier, a Georgia Tech junior, told a USG Board of Regents committee meeting, “Rep. Ehrhart has now bullied you.”

USG Chancellor Hank Huckaby said the change in policy was actually the result of months of work that began in August 2014 when he “called for the USG to take a serious and thorough look” at what the USG was doing at all campuses regarding safety.

“We are committed to providing safe and welcoming campuses for all of our students,” said Huckaby. “Our goal is simple, yet critically important to our campus communities – to provide more consistent and clearer system-wide practices to ensure fairness for all of our students.”

The new policy mandates “any finding that a student has violated policy must be based on a preponderance of the evidence standard. No student may be suspended or expelled unless substantial evidence is identified to support the finding.”

The new USG policy for all Georgia campuses also ensures the accused and his or her accuser shall have the right to attorneys and advisers at each stage of the investigation, hearing, and appeal.

However, Napier is afraid the change in policy would make victims of sexual crimes on campus hesitant to report the attacks to campus police.

“When I look at the policy,” she said, “I see an effort to make the reporting, investigation and decision-making process as cumbersome as possible.”