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Campus assault claims: 75 men sue for putting accusers' rights before theirs

A legal backlash is growing as college men accused of sexual assault take schools to court. Many schools punish alleged rapists, even if the case isn't reported to police.

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A University of Oregon student writes messages about the school's sexual assault policies as reporters leave a news conference in this May 2014 file photo. Three of the school's basketball players were dismissed from the team after being investigated, but not charged, for an alleged sexual assault.

Chris Pietsch/ AP via The Register-Guard/ File

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The government-led push against sexual assault on college campuses has unintentionally produced a new batch of victims: male students accused of rape, yet never found guilty in criminal court.

These college men say they can face suspension, expulsion, and hiring challenges for years to come. 

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Overall, sexual assault is believed to remain vastly underreported, despite a strong push from the US Department of Education in 2011. Some 23 percent of undergraduate women reported being threatened or forced into nonconsensual contact in one 2015 survey of more than two dozen colleges. Rates of reporting the incident to school officials or police ranged from 5 to 25 percent. 

But there are serious flaws in how schools handle those claims, lawyers for the accused often say. At least 75 young men have sued their colleges since 2013, according to the Associated Press, claiming that investigators prioritized alleged victims' rights over their own. 

Under rules set forth by the DOE's Office for Civil Rights, schools must quickly respond to assault claims whether or not the accuser goes to police. The DOE also instructs schools to use the "preponderance of evidence" standard to decide students' "guilt." In other words, if it seems more likely than not that an assault took place, the school can consider actions such as suspension or expulsion. In criminal courts, however, cases must pass a higher bar, the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. 

That puts some accused students in an odd, life-changing dilemma: "guilty" at school, but not under the law. A fierce battle to alter school reporting laws has sprung up between advocates – who say police reporting should be required for such serious charges, who back the House's Safe Campus Act – and victims' rights' experts who say the risks accusers face often outweigh the benefits of seeking legal justice. Victim advocates typically favor following the Senate's Campus Accountability and Safety Act, or CASA.

But while the political battle continues, many say an equally or more important place to push for change is campus culture, and students' understanding of what does and does not constitute consensual sex. Education can help avoid assault in the first place, but also empower bystanders to step in, and help victims recognize what's happened to them, which could speed up the time it takes to report the assault to any authorities, a major factor in securing evidence. 

"No means no" can seem like a simple mantra. But increasingly, schools are pushing students towards an active consent standard of "Yes means yes" — something which became a California law in September 2014. 

That principle has plenty of critics, some of whom argue it's simply unrealistic. But proponents say that clearing up what consent sounds like can prevent assault, but also help young women interpret what's happened to them. On college campuses, in particular, rapists usually know their victims, which can help instill doubts that what happened was "really rape" for people who associate rape with violent strangers. 

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"Victims don’t often identify it as a crime because they know the person, they trusted the person, [there's a] sense of denial or disbelief that it happened," Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, told Time. 

Other campus approaches, like the White House's "It's On Us" campaign, encourage men in particular to be aware of dangerous situations, and intervene when they suspect someone is at risk. 

"I don't feel guilty" about the percent of assaults committed by men, one coach at Colby College told his soccer team during a discussion on harassment, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in November 2014. "I don’t expect you guys to feel guilty. But I do feel responsible."