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What is the Most Difficult Part of Participating as a Respondent in a School Sexual Assault Process?

If you’ve been accused of sexual assault in an educational setting such as on a college campus, you may quickly find your life spiraling out of control. The process can move very fast, and it may seem like you transition from accused to “guilty” very quickly. It is important to take any allegations seriously and take the right steps to protect yourself.

Knowing the challenges to expect and how to handle those challenges can make it much easier to endure the process and, more importantly, help you emerge with as little damage as possible to your reputation and future prospects. It is a good idea to consult an attorney who understands Title IX cases and campus disciplinary proceedings because the process is very different than being accused of sexual assault in criminal court.

What is most difficult about the process and how can you make it easier? We will review what’s involved and how the process may be changing as the new Title IX rules take effect. With the guidance of experienced legal counsel, you can avoid common pitfalls, improve your position, and reduce the burden and the impact of a sexual assault allegation.

Why the Process Carries Such Weight

Accusations of sexual assault in a school setting are often handled through a campus investigation as a violation of Title IX. It is possible that criminal charges would also be filed, but those often come later and will be prosecuted differently. Evidence unearthed in the Title IX proceedings on campus could be used in a subsequent criminal proceeding.

But the Title IX case itself needs to be handled carefully even though it “only” involves campus discipline. If a student is found “responsible” for misconduct, that finding will cause a loss of current and future opportunities, scholarships, positions on sports teams, and often suspension or expulsion from the school. This record and the loss of reputation often haunt students for the rest of their lives. It is important to take the best available measures to defend an accused student and limit the damage caused by the accusations.

Overview of a Title IX Sexual Assault Case

A sexual assault case on campus may start with a dorm room search by police, an interview, or an email or phone call from a school administrator. Sometimes the person accused will be asked questions before being formally notified that they have been accused of a violation.

Once a Title IX complaint has been formally filed, the person accused is known as the respondent. The person who filed the complaint is, not surprisingly, the complainant.

School Policies Determine the Procedure

Federal IX regulations give individual schools some choice in how they handle investigations of Title IX complaints as long as they follow certain guidelines and requirements. That means that the process of handling a school sexual assault process can be different at each school. To further complicate matters, the federal rules that schools must follow when setting their policies have changed drastically in recent years and are about to change again, so these changes will be reflected in various ways as schools alter their policies.

It is important to comb through those school policies to know what to expect, to learn whether the school is following stated procedures, and to ensure that those procedures follow Title IX rules. The administrators handling Title IX complaints don’t always understand how to follow the policies properly, or they may choose to ignore them. That can give an accused student options for fighting accusations, if not at the campus level, then in court later.

Meeting the Title IX Coordinator

After being notified of a complaint, a student is generally required to meet with the Title IX coordinator or another administrator. This is an extremely important meeting. While students often see this as an informal opportunity to clear up a misunderstanding or accept minor punishment for an acknowledgment, they need to be extremely careful about what they say and realize that the school is required to conduct a thorough investigation in most cases, so this meeting is just the beginning. What a student says during the meeting can be held against them later, and it can damage credibility.

Procedural Interview

In many cases, the next step in the process is an interview with an administrator who will explain the process and what to expect. There is a lot of information to take in, and it is important to listen carefully. It is often at this point that shellshock sets in.

An accused student should generally not volunteer information or answer questions about the incident to avoid the potential of being accused of providing contradictory information later.


Schools often use a single individual to investigate both sides of a Title IX allegation. That person may conduct interviews with the complainant, respondent, and witnesses repeatedly until they feel they have the answers they need. Some schools used to allow this same investigator to also make the determination of responsibility, but this practice was banned by a rule revision in 2020. The new federal regulations that will shortly take effect may allow this practice to resume.

It is not uncommon for a respondent to be nervous during these questioning sessions. They may forget information or remember something incorrectly. When they try to correct a statement later, they come across as untrustworthy.

The Hearing

When the investigation is complete, the investigator makes a recommendation and then the school may hold a hearing to determine whether the respondent is responsible or not responsible for the sexual assault they are accused of committing. Respondents often have little time to prepare for the hearing. In that time, they may need to locate additional witnesses and evidence, prepare opening and closing statements, and prepare a position statement on potential sanctions. It’s a lot to handle on short notice.

The hearing can last for days and proceed like a trial. Advice and representation from an experienced attorney can be crucial at this stage in particular.

Which Part of the Process is Most Difficult?

From a legal perspective, Title IX attorneys know that all parts of the process are difficult because they put so much pressure on the person accused. That pressure can cause them to do things that hurt their case, such as trying to approach their accuser to reason with them. Sometimes, administrators almost seem to trick respondents into saying things that will be used against them later. This can happen at any point.

From the respondent’s perspective, clients tell us that the stress caused by the uncertainty, fear, and isolation can become overwhelming during the lengthy process. At whatever moment they truly understand the potential consequences and the difficulty of proving their side of the story, that is often the most painful and difficult moment, but it hits people at different times.

Having an experienced and dedicated Title IX attorney to rely on throughout the process gives you someone you can always turn to in times of stress and provides reassurance that you are taking the best steps forward.

The Team at Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP Can Guide You Through the Title IX Process

As the new regulations take effect, the process is likely to become more difficult for respondents in many cases. Some schools may establish more informal processes to resolve cases, but this could give respondents fewer opportunities to present evidence in their defense. The informal resolution process may be quicker and may not include a hearing, and in that sense, it will reduce some temporary stress, but that only adds more pressure to get started early to demonstrate that the respondent is not responsible for the acts they are accused of.

At Nesenoff & Miltenberg, LLP, we understand all the details when it comes to Title IX cases, and we are dedicated to protecting our clients’ rights at every stage of the proceedings. If you or a loved one have been accused of sexual assault in a school setting, contact us now to learn how we can help.