Fargo mother starts nonprofit to support rights of those accused of campus sexual assault
FARGO -- Sherry Warner Seefeld spent nearly three months worrying that her son would end up in the state penitentiary.
“I saw not just his career and future damaged, but more importantly, his emotional and psychological health destroyed,” said the Fargo mother and sociology teacher. “I hurt for Caleb so much.”
In January 2010, Caleb Warner was accused of sexually assaulting another University of North Dakota student. While he was never charged with a crime, the next month Warner was kicked out of UND after a Student Relations Committee found him in violation of criminal sexual assault laws and “conducting himself in a manner that significantly endangers the health or safety of members of the university community.”
“He started thinking that if his college could find him guilty, what’s to stop a jury from finding him guilty,” Warner Seefeld said. “It was very scary.”
She and two other mothers who say their sons were falsely accused of sexual misconduct recently formed a national nonprofit organization called Families Advocating for Campus Equality to provide a support system for other families going through what they experienced and to bring awareness to what they call a “lack of fair and balanced safeguards within campus hearings.”
“When this happened to Caleb in 2010, I thought we were the only ones,” she said. “We felt very isolated. You feel afraid a lot. It’s very traumatic.”
Their goal is to ensure fairness and due process for all parties involved in allegations of sexual misconduct on college campuses. The group also hopes to help change the ways campuses respond to sexual assaults. When the issue of sexual misconduct on college campuses is addressed, rights of the accused are hardly, if ever, mentioned, said Warner Seefeld, who is president of the group.
“I decided that it was a cause absolutely worth fighting for,” she said. “I believe in fighting against injustice. This was so appalling and lonely.”
‘It crushed his spirit’
Two and a half months after Warner received the letter from UND’s Student Relations Committee stating that he was being suspended from the university and banned from campus and university activities for three years, Warner’s accuser, Jessica Murray, was charged with making a false report to law enforcement and a warrant was issued for her arrest, according to court documents.
Warner was never charged. There is still a warrant out for the arrest of Murray, who was living in California when the court documents were filed in May 2010.
UND eventually removed the sanction against Warner, but it took more than a year and a half following repeated requests for a rehearing, and pressure from his mother, alumni and a civil rights organization.
In the meantime, Warner’s future was derailed, his mother said. He lost a job he loved – helping coach high school wrestling – and he was forced to quit another job because he couldn’t set foot on campus.
With the sanction lifted, Warner Seefeld said she was hoping for resolution for her family. While her son’s name has officially been cleared, they do not feel resolved.
She said while her son can go back to UND, he never will, and he’s not sure whether he’ll ever go back to college.
He also said he doesn’t ever want to get married or have children, Warner Seefeld said.
“It’s hard for him to trust again,” she said.
He cannot talk about what happened without it affecting him for months, she said.
“It crushed his spirit in ways that are unimaginable,” Warner Seefeld said. “He sobbed on the floor for hours.”
When she talks about it, she has to occasionally blink back tears, and she said her heart rate starts to race. But she does it, she said, to let others who are going through similar situations know they are not alone and to make people aware of how easy it can be to be kicked out of school, even if you’ve done nothing wrong.
The nonprofit group is concerned that sexual assault is handled differently on college campuses than in the criminal justice system.
When asked how UND could punish a student for breaking a criminal law when he was not arrested or charged in the criminal justice system, university officials said in a November 2011 Grand Forks Herald story that the disciplinary processes of the two groups are separate.
Schools do not have to wait for a criminal investigation to end or even begin to start their own investigation. And a student’s conduct may be considered unlawful, even if police don’t have enough evidence for a criminal violation, according the U.S. Department of Education.
A school’s grievance procedures must also use the “preponderance of the evidence” standard to resolve complaints of sexual violence. That standard of proof is typically used in civil litigation and means that one side has more evidence in its favor than the other, even if it’s only by a small amount. It is less rigorous than the standard of proof used in criminal trials, where a prosecutor must prove the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
A higher standard is used for criminal matters because of the severity of the potential punishment, said Christopher Wilson, North Dakota State University’s general counsel.
“In fact, the federal court for the 8th Circuit, which encompasses North Dakota, has specifically held that ‘school regulations are not to be measured by the standards which prevail for the criminal law and for criminal procedure,’ ” he said.
Families Advocating for Campus Equality wants to help address the problem of sexual assault on college campuses, Warner Seefeld said. But she added that it can’t be solved by creating more victims. Even if a small percentage of rape reports are given falsely, she said it’s not OK to throw away one person’s life.
“It’s about the equal application of the process,” she said. “We need to stop sexual assault, but without damaging innocent individuals.”