Grace Starling transformed from a student to an activist on the day House Bill 51 was filed in the Georgia House of Representatives. It was then that she decided to go public with a night she’d tried hard to forget - the night she says she was raped.
But for a male college student, who says he was falsely accused of sexual misconduct in a separate case involving another student, the bill is a badly-needed remedy to a university justice system run amok. Eventually cleared, he says the allegations, nonetheless, altered his college career and caused friends to abandon him.
As reports of rapes on college campuses have risen, so too have measures designed to protect sexual assault victims. But as schools have moved aggressively to curb sexual violence they are facing a backlash from students who say they were falsely accused.
SECRETIVE JUSTICE: How campus tribunals handle rape on campus
The leading edge of that fight is playing out in Georgia, where a bill is advancing in the final days of the legislative session that would provide more due process rights to the accused while also dramatically limiting the ability of the state’s public colleges to investigate and punish allegations of rape. The measure passed in the House earlier this month and is pending in the state Senate.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, has emerged as an outspoken figure in the polarizing national debate, filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education because of their tough guidelines. Under the Obama administration, colleges were ordered to crack down on sexual assault or risk losing federal funds. That could change under the Trump administration. At a U.S. Senate hearing in January, the new president’s pick to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, ducked questions about whether she’d commit to keeping the sexual assault guidelines.
Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, hopes what is happening in Georgia could lead the way in a new direction where the rights of the accused are given greater protections.
“HB 51 is about due process and safe campuses,” Ehrhart said. “It’s about the rights of victims and the accused. It’s about the basic bedrock of our judicial system that if you’re accused of a crime, you’re entitled to due process.”
Advocates for victims say he’s gone too far.
“A lot of states have considered bills like this and rejected them because they learned from survivors and policy-makers they would only make campuses less safe and less fair,” said Alexandra Brodksy, a fellow at National Women’s Law Center. “This will hurt survivors and will not promote fair process for students accused of misconduct.”
“Stories… will make you weep”
Campus rape cases are frequently difficult to prove. There are usually no witnesses. Alcohol is often involved. Memories are cloudy. Issues of consent can be murky. Many times, the victim may wait days to come forward.
Victims are typically granted anonymity, in part, due to the stigma involved.
But in the shadows are also young men who have seen their lives altered by accusations, Ehrhart said. Many don’t want anyone to know what they experienced. Even if they are cleared, there can be a stigma for them as well, advocates said.
“There are stories on both sides of this issue that will make you weep,” said state Rep. Regina Quick, R-Athens, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Under the current system, a sexual assault victim - they identify themselves as survivors - can choose to report to police, who then launch a criminal investigation. A prosecutor would decide whether to pursue the charges.
Independently, the school can conduct its own probe under the federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX. It is a more secretive process and the burden of proof is lower.
The school may discipline the student if they are “found responsible” and punishment can include suspension or expulsion.
Last year, the Georgia Board of Regents put in place system-wide policies to eliminate disparities between schools. The university system has not taken a position on Ehrhart’s bill, saying only that the Regents are working with the lawmaker. Ehrhart leads a panel that controls state funding for higher education.
Advocates for those accused of sexual assault say the campus process allows cases to move forward that would never pass muster in a court of law.
“It’s creating a new class of victims and that new class of victims is made up of accused young men who haven’t had a fair opportunity to defend themselves against these findings,” said attorney Andrew Miltenberg, who has brought about 30 cases in various states on behalf of college men who say they were falsely accused of rape.
In its current form, HB 51 says schools must to report to police if there has been a sexual assault but administrators cannot include any detail that “specifically identifies the victim” without consent. The school can move forward with its own investigation and punishment only after law enforcement has done so and only if then the victim comes forward, according to the legislation.
Schools can take steps - like changing a victim’s class schedule or dorm assignment - to reduce the chances she will run into her alleged assailant. But no disciplinary action can be taken against the accused — such as changing classes or dorm — until he has had a hearing.
Victims’ rights advocates say the bill would weaken a campus justice system that provides them a measure of accountability rarely found on the criminal side. Prosecutors have a tough time proving campus sexual assault cases. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report found they rarely, if ever, bring charges.
The difficulty surrounding such cases was summed up by an opponent of the bill as it passed the House on March 1 after a lengthy debate.
“In some of these cases you are simply never going to know what truly happened,” state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur. “This is an area of extreme difficulty. Tragedy. Life-changing and damaging facts.”
A college acts; a prosecutor doesn’t
Starling has seen how justice works from both sides.
She was 19 and pursuing a double major in art history and economics when she was assaulted in 2014.
Starling told a professor and then the police. Within six weeks, her attacker was expelled from a metro area college he attended.
While the school moved swiftly, the criminal case lingered for 2 1/2 years — until last August, when she learned through news accounts that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard had decided not to go forward with a prosecution.
“I had already come to terms that it was over,” she said. “I did not get justice through the criminal justice system.”
By then, Starling was two weeks into her first semester of law school.
It was on Jan. 24 when Starling, now 23, got an email from her mother that HB 51 was filed. That night she created a Facebook page to rally opposition to the bill and began organizing classmates and friends.
Two days later, Starling made the short drive to the Capitol and began talking to legislators.
“This has really crushed his soul”
It was Halloween in 2014 when a then-19-year-old Georgia Tech student offered an intoxicated friend a warm place to wait for her roommate to return with keys to their room. Mostly, he said, she talked and repeatedly apologized for being a “burden.” Both parties agree there was no sexual contact.
The next day, the young woman texted him her gratitude for taking care of her. She also told a sorority sister about the night and that sorority sister repeated the story.
Within a few days, Tech’s Office for Student Integrity contacted him.
The male student spoke to the AJC on condition of anonymity to protect his post-college prospects now that he has been cleared. He said he gave Tech administrators copies of text messages from the young woman as well as the names of others who could confirm his account. He met with Tech’s Title IX administrator and an investigator with the Office of Student Integrity.
“I told them the story of how it happened. I wasn’t going to leave her on the side of the road at 1:30 in the morning,” he said. “I didn’t think it was safe outside.”
After a second meeting, the student was told in an e-mail that he had violated Tech’s sexual misconduct code by allegedly not allowing the woman to leave his dorm until her friends returned. The investigator cited the student’s gender and size (6-foot-one and about 175 pounds) as well as events unrelated to that night such as accounts of previous romantic relationships and rumors about why he and his former girlfriend broke up.
“This has really crushed his soul,” the student’s mother told The AJC.
His discipline was suspension for six months to be held in abeyance, which meant he couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities without permission and he could be expelled for any subsequent problems. He also was required to get a psychological evaluation.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I was trying to do what was right,” the Tech senior said. “In this country, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.”
Though he has since been cleared, “a lot has changed” for him, the student said.
Friends no longer invite him on camping trips or to evening outings because the woman at the center of his case is also a part of that group.
“I just stick to myself,” the student said.
He graduates in May.
A Tricky Balance
Critics say some colleges did go too far in their efforts to combat sexual assault. Now some states are trying to return to somewhere in the middle.
“Because the Department of Education has the power to open investigations into violations of Title IX… that’s a huge hammer,” said Shan Wu, a former U.S. Department of Justice sex crimes prosecutor and now a Washington attorney specializing in sexual assault defense. “They (colleges) have responded strongly to that by frantically rewriting those procedures. There’s been a huge rush to try and satisfy the Department of Education (that has) caused a lot of mistakes.”
Ehrhart introduced HB 51 in January just six months after Georgia’s colleges and universities began following new, statewide policies that spelled out specific rights promised victims of sexual assault as well as those accused of attacking them.
Ehrhart said he had heard too many stories about families spending tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys to defend their sons, who they maintained had been falsely accused. He heard about one young man who attempted suicide because of pressure from an administrative investigation and about others losing careers even before they started.
“Those who have come to me are the moms who are so destroyed, whose sons hadn’t ever done anything bad,” Ehrhart said.
“I’m not going to sit with any more moms like that if I can help it. It’s the most wrenching experience I’ve ever had,” he said.
He also is the plaintiff against in a lawsuit against the Department of Education that is similar to federal complaints filed in other states. In the suit, Ehrhart noted that his step-son attends Tech and he feared he could be falsely accused of sexual assault and, as a taxpayer, Ehrhart has had to pay the legal costs to defend lawsuits brought by students who were disciplined based on false accusations.
How prevalent are false accusations?
According to the National Center for the Prosecution of Violence Against Women, it’s hard to know specifically how many rape reports are false. But studies based on “methodologically rigorous research” found 2 percent to 8 percent of rape reports are false, the center said.
State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, said during floor debate to not forget those who were attacked.
“We have a system that all too often fails the victim. We can’t send a message to (rape) survivors that we don’t believe them,” he said. “They hear that over and over and over again.”
Two days after the campus rape bill was filed, Starling made the short drive to the Capitol and began talking to legislators
First on her list was Ehrhart. Starling sent in a note that a “concerned law student and sexual assault survivor” was waiting in the hall outside the House chamber to talk with him about HB 51; he didn’t respond at that time but she caught him between meetings later.
Going to the Capitol between classes, Starling has sent in similar notes to other lawmakers.
“I just keep showing up and I don’t leave,” said Starling. “I don’t want to be Grace Starling the rape victim. I want to be Grace Starling the survivor who advocates for other rape survivors.”
She lost that argument in the House. But within an hour of that 115-55 vote Starling had called 30 of the 56 senators, telling them to “get ready for an avalanche.”