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Emma Sulkowicz gained notoriety in 2014 when she began carrying a 50-pound mattress around Columbia's campus as part of her senior art thesis and to protest the university's handling of her sexual assault allegations against fellow student Paul Nungesser. Nungesser was found not guilty of misconduct, and police declined to press charges, but Sulkowicz continued her protest of Nungesser's presence on campus.
Nungesser eventually sued the school, first for failing to protect him from Sulkowicz's protest, then, after that case was dismissed, for violating Title IX, claiming that the school's policies amounted to "sex bias in disciplining him for an alleged sexual assault." Although that lawsuit was also dismissed, Columbia settled with Nungesser, though Sulkowicz was not party to the settlement and the terms remain confidential.
As reports of sexual assaults on campuses skyrocket, colleges and universities have been put in the unenviable position of first responders, fact-finders, and arbiters of rape allegations. Educational institutions poorly suited to investigative duties must also comply with federal law prohibiting sex discrimination, and are finding that the Title IX door can swing both ways.
Normally used by female accusers to hold schools accountable for inadequately investigating sexual assault allegations (or failing to investigate them at all), more and more male accusers are suing schools under Title IX, claiming their rights have been violated during or after the handling of their cases.
Same Title, Different Interpretation
The settlement comes at a time when schools' obligations may be in flux. In 2011, Barack Obama's Department of Education issued guidance on the procedural requirements and responsibilities for colleges and universities investigating claims of sexual assault under Title IX. But it appears that guidance may be changing, as new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently indicated that accused students have been treated unfairly during sexual assault investigations.
Whether Nungesser's settlement is unique to this case or a harbinger of things to come for campus rape claims remains to be seen.