Explore more from America Tonight's Sex Crimes on Campus special series.
“The phone call. The phone call," sighed Allison Strange. "There’s always that one call that you never expect to get.”
On Sept. 6, 2011, the caller ID showed her son's cell phone, but the voice on the other end wasn't Josh. Her son had been arrested for rape.
Josh Strange avoided prosecution, but he did face the justice of Auburn University, where he was a sophomore. Under federal civil rights law, colleges and universities have to conduct their own investigations into sexual assault reports, separate from a criminal one. And after a 99-minute hearing, the discipline committee – chaired by a university librarian – reached its decision.
“Josh was as white as a piece of notebook paper, and just looked like he had been punched in the stomach,” remembered Allison Strange, who was outside the hearing room. “I walked up and I looked, and Josh said, ‘Mom, I’m gone. They don’t want me here anymore. I can’t stay. They’ve expelled me.’”
In the aftermath, Allison and Josh Strange formed the group Families Advocating for Campus Equality that pushes for universities to get out of the business of adjudicating sexual assault cases. Allison Strange wants those cases to be left to the criminal justice system, and she says you only need to look at her son's case to understand why.
Josh Strange had dreamed of attending Auburn since he was 12. Toward the end of his freshman year in 2011, he pledged a fraternity and began dating a young woman he’d met through mutual friends. After a month, they changed their Facebook statuses to “in a relationship.”
Then, on June 29, 2011, they went back to his apartment after a night of heavy drinking. Strange said that a little while after going to sleep, the couple woke up and started having sex.
“My girlfriend had woken up, and she initiated everything,” he said. “We started having sex that night and all of a sudden, about midway through, she just loses it.”
Strange’s girlfriend called the police, who detained him for questioning. She said Strange had forced himself on her. He said that she initiated the sex. His accuser didn’t press charges. In fact, he said she returned to his apartment the next morning to apologize for the misunderstanding.
“I was just confused,” he said. “She looked at me and said, ‘Well, it was nothing, you know, I freaked out. I’m sorry.’ She said [it was] a misunderstanding. I don’t really know what she meant by that, but she just kept apologizing and apologizing.”
The couple continued to date and sleep together for another six weeks. Then, their relationship started to fall apart. On Labor Day Weekend of 2011, a month after they cut off communication, Strange was again arrested at his home. He said she made a second false charge of dating violence, accusing him of slapping her in the face with a set of keys in a parking lot of a frozen yogurt shop back in September.
He flatly denies the charge, and said witnesses confirmed that he was 15 miles away from where the incident allegedly took place. This time, however, the accuser did press charges for misdemeanor simple assault, as well as for the earlier alleged incident: felony forcible sodomy.
It didn’t take long for word to spread through Auburn. It hit him when he was standing in line at a campus Chick-fil-A.
Josh was as white as a piece of notebook paper, and just looked like he had been punched in the stomach. I walked up and I looked, and Josh said, ‘Mom, I’m gone. They don’t want me here anymore. I can’t stay. They’ve expelled me.’
“All of a sudden I heard, ‘Did you hear about that Josh Strange guy?....He raped a girl,’" he remembered. “…At that point, I got out of line and I just left. I went home.”
On Nov. 7, 2011, the university held a hearing to determine Josh’s future. The jury was made up of two students, a staff member from the College of Liberal Arts and a fisheries professor from the Agriculture College. Strange was present, but didn't speak on the advice of his lawyer, who said anything could be used against him in a criminal trial. And he said his accuser stood in the middle of the room in what resembled a jerry-rigged PVC structure, draped in a black sheet.
The first witness was an associate director with the campus police who doubles as a “safe-harbor advocate.” A tape recording of the hearing revealed that while she found the accuser “very credible” and Josh “a potential threat to [his accuser’s] safety,” she had never actually heard the accuser’s version of events.
“As a safe harbor advocate, I really don’t need to know a lot of details, and so I didn’t ask her to go into great detail,” the official said, according to the tape recording. “I don’t really want survivors to have to tell their story over and over again.”
There was no cross-examination. After just over an hour and a half, the discipline committee recommended expulsion.
'Not fair to anybody'
Since America Tonight aired its Sex Crimes on Campus series last fall, more students disciplined for sexual assault have been firing back against their colleges, saying the system is stacked against them. Many schools have been handed lawsuits, including Brown University, Swarthmore, Vassar, Williams and Bucknell, just to name a few. And in a new twist, some claim their schools actually discriminated against them as men.
School hearings were built to judge plagiarism cases and don't afford the parties the same rights as a criminal trial. But, student sexual assault victims overwhelmingly turn to their schools – as opposed to law enforcement – for some form of justice, leaving colleges in the strange position of adjudicating violent crimes.
Federal guidance on the Title IX civil rights law instructs colleges to use a preponderance of the evidence standard in deliberating on sexual assaults, or "more likely than not." The administration says this lower bar is essential to ensure equal access to education. Critics say it exponentially ups the risk of railroading men.
Last month, 28 members of the Harvard Law School faculty wrote an open letter, charging the university's more victim-friendly sexual assault policy with violating "many of the most basic principles we teach." And in October, 20 lawyers wrote a letter to the U.S. Senate, saying the implementation of Title IX gender-equality law failed to address the rights of the accused.
“We’re lawyers who are seasoned litigators, who’ve said this is not how you resolve a problem as substantially superior as sexual assault. It’s not fair to anybody, and that stain stays on those boys’ records the rest of their lives,” said Eric Rosenberg, one of the letter's signees, who's represented multiple college students he says were falsely accused of sexual assault. “I don’t think that, currently, students or faculty are educated on how to handle something that complex."
Fanning the fears
A few months after Strange's college hearing, a criminal court cleared him of all charges. A grand jury found there wasn’t probable cause for prosecution for the sodomy charge. When the simple assault case went to trial, the accuser didn’t show up so the case was dropped. But none of that changed the fact of Strange's expulsion. He was warned that if he ever stepped on Auburn's campus again, he would potentially be charged with criminal trespass.
The university denied America Tonight’s request for an interview, but provided a statement: “As you are doubtless aware, federal requirement from the U.S. Dept. of Education mandate that all public universities follow a process that differs from the judicial and law enforcement systems in many ways. Those requirements are very clear and come with severe penalties for noncompliance. We at Auburn take these requirements very seriously and that is reflected in our Code of Student Discipline.”
Colleges that don't comply with Title IX risk losing their federal funding. And while no school has ever faced that penalty, critics caution that the current administration's more active tack in investigating schools are rushing some to hasty judgments. The recent trend of “yes means yes” or “affirmative consent” policies have further fanned the fears. These conduct codes put more of the burden on the accused to prove that the other person consented, as opposed to making alleged victims prove that they were forced.
“Many legal scholars are actually talking about how there’s now a presumption of guilt against the boy who’s been accused of sexual assault,” Rosenberg said. “…They don’t get the due process rights that many Americans would expect to have occur.”
Strange thinks he was a victim of this new climate.
“The explanation that we’ve really come up with is just Title IX compliance,” he said. “They had to have something to say, that they’re complying with this federal mandate to try to keep the funding that they get.”
Advocates are fighting for colleges to take a more aggressive approach to sexual assault, pointing out that only a fraction of students found culpable are expelled. But Allison Strange and her son hope to remind people that there is another side to the story. She Skypes weekly with other mothers of sons who have been accused of sexual assault on college campuses, and says there are so many students out there whose lives have been twisted up by false claims of rape.
"How in the world can we be in a situation where someone’s words – without any evidence, without any witnesses, without anything – how in the world can someone’s life be turned upside down, or basically ruined?” Strange said. “You grow up hearing sticks and stones can break my bones and words can never hurt me. I would have taken sticks and stones breaking bones all day long over knowing that someone could say something about you, and that it would pull the plug on your entire life."
She added: “They pulled the plug, and we were swirling down the drain. And that’s exactly how it felt.”