Marcus Knight, an autistic student with cerebral palsy, is suing Saddleback College after he alleges that his college record was “improperly” black-marked with two Title IX violations.
Knight, 19, first came to national attention in 2018 when his attempts to make friends landed him in the Title IX office. According to the lawsuit, Knight asked one female student for a “fist bump.” Soon after, Knight asked to take a selfie with another student.
The “fist bump” was reported to the Title IX office. And the selfie? When Marcus took it, he accidentally pressed “burst” mode a few times due to his cerebral palsy. The result? Knight had quite a few selfies with the woman, but she later alleged that Knight took “over 300” photos of her.
Knight’s mother spoke with PJ Media on Tuesday, explaining that “fist bumps” and selfies are ways that Knight develops a sense of belonging at college. “My son just wants to have friends like everyone else … why is that wrong?”
“Marcus was famous for his ‘fist bump’ in high school. There were even few students that had special fist bumps with him,” his mother, Aurora Knight, told PJ Media by phone.
But since The College Fix broke the story last July, Aurora Knight had been at a loss as to what to do. At one point, Marcus even faced the possibility of suspension. However, with the help of an ongoing GoFundMe, his mother retained California attorney Mark Hathaway, who filed a lawsuit on Knight’s behalf.
According to the suit, Saddleback College Title IX Officer Juan Avalos failed to provide Knight with standard due process protections on multiple accounts.
Knight, for example, “had no opportunity to question the complainant or adverse witnesses in front of neutral fact-finder(s) at a live evidentiary hearing” and Title IX Officer Juan Avalos “relied upon evidence never before provided to [Marcus Knight].”
How could Marcus Knight — then an 18-year-old freshman — dispute “evidence” he wasn’t even made aware of?
And while the suit glosses over Knight’s autism, it’s easy to see how it could have disadvantaged him in the Title IX proceedings.
“Simply put, [students on the autism spectrum] often do not possess the needed skill set to realize how their behavior may be perceived by other people,” Lori Tucker, an educational law attorney and advocate for students with disabilities, told PJ Media last February.
“Even a simple misunderstanding or seemingly innocent misbehavior can result in involvement in a Title IX proceeding,” she added.
Marcus Knight has no recourse against Saddleback College except this lawsuit.
While Knight hopes to graduate with a B.A. in musical theater, because of the accusations made to the Title IX office Knight is no longer allowed to be on campus, in class, or in any activities without the oversight of his mother or a special-needs aid.
The fallout has been catastrophic, said Marcus’s mother. Not only is her son constantly depressed, but the single mother claims she lost her primary job as a direct result of the “countless hours” she’s had to take off work to meet with school officials.
The lawsuit aims to overturn that sanction, in addition to removing the two misconduct marks from his transcript. Since Saddleback is a community college, Knight will soon apply to a four-year degree program. But if the lawsuit is unsuccessful, Knight’s chances of getting into a four-year degree program may be slim.
According to USC Professor James Moore — who has spoken to PJ Media numerous times about the consequences of being accused of sexual misconduct — many colleges will shun an aspiring transfer student if they were once accused.
Title IX investigations have often been “damaging to the lives of the students and families involved; to the institutions that will subsequently be sued, sometimes successfully, by the men whose interests they injure,” Moore told PJ Media.
“It is not quite an economic death sentence, but it is close. The stakes are very high for students,” he added.
Marcus Knight, for his part, simply wants to stay in college and to continue pursuing his musical career. He maintains that he never intended wrongdoing.
In a letter to one of his accusers, the young man deeply apologized.
“[It] is difficult to make friends for me. I wasn’t try to do anything wrong, I was just trying to have a new friend in campus,” wrote Knight. “I am a good guy, I feel very lonely and depressed and I am having hard time, so please forgive me.”
“I know I am different, but I am a good guy, and very respectful sometimes is hard to get to know me. You can ask the people that know me and they will tell you I am a good guy. I am so sorry,” he concluded. (The text of the private letter is included in the lawsuit.)
Reached Tuesday, Saddleback College declined to comment. For Knight, graduating high school was a huge achievement, one that his mother always worried if he’d accomplish because of his autism and learning disabilities.
“We were lucky to find amazing educators and teachers that were able to see his potential and to look at him not at his ‘labels'” Aurora Knight told PJ Media. “I never doubted him… but we both had to fight for it.”
For now, it’s a waiting game to see if he prevails in court, if Saddleback College will wipe clean his college record, and if a four-year university will take a chance on the prospective transfer student. Until then, Marcus and Aurora Knight are left in limbo.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen.