Federal appeals court backs suspension of Valencia College student in sexual harassment case

Amid a national debate about how colleges and universities should handle allegations of sexual misconduct, a federal appeals court Thursday upheld a decision by Valencia College to suspend a student for a year after he was accused of sexually harassing another student.

A panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Jeffrey Koeppel that the college had violated his First Amendment and due-process rights and the federal education law known as Title IX, which addresses discrimination based on sex.

The allegations against Koeppel included that he sent numerous sexually inappropriate text messages to a student, identified only as Jane Roe, who had rebuffed his advances. The woman reported Koeppel’s messages and behavior to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and the Valencia College dean of students, but Koeppel continued contacting her after being advised by a deputy and the dean to stop, according to Thursday’s ruling.

A federal district judge upheld the college’s decision to suspend Koeppel for a year, and the Atlanta-based appeals court backed that ruling.

“Accused robbers, rapists, and murderers have statutory and constitutional rights. So does a college student who is accused of stalking and sexually harassing another student,” said Thursday’s 29-page ruling, written by Chief Judge Ed Carnes and joined by judges Stanley Marcus and David Ebel. “The question in this case is whether Valencia College violated Jeffrey Koeppel’s statutory or constitutional rights when it suspended him for his conduct toward another student at the college. The district court did not think so, and neither do we.”

The ruling came amid a broader debate about college and university procedures for determining whether students should be punished for alleged sexual misconduct. The New York Times has recently reported that the U.S. Department of Education is proposing new regulations that are designed, in part, to bolster the rights of students accused of misconduct. That would be a turnabout from the Obama administration, which issued guidelines focused on the rights of victims.

Koeppel met Jane Roe in the summer of 2014 when they were assigned to the same biology lab group at Valencia, according to the appeals-court ruling. Eventually, Koeppel told the woman that he was attracted to her, but she said she had a boyfriend and that she was not interested in a relationship outside of the biology class.

Shortly before the fall semester started, Koeppel saw something online that he thought indicated the woman was single. He contacted her, but she again rebuffed his advances and said she had been seeing someone for three years, the ruling said.

That led to a series of text messages, which were listed in the ruling. While several are too lewd to reprint, the texts included such things as, “I wondered if u were a hussie and i guess so” and “Dress like a hooker and now act like it too.”

After reporting the messages to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, the woman later took the issue to Valencia Dean of Students Joseph Sarrubbo. After a process that involved the woman filing a report with campus security, Sarrubbo ultimately began an investigation and concluded that Koeppel had likely violated the school’s student code of conduct.

Sarrubbo sent the case to a student conduct committee, which heard testimony from Koeppel and recommended that he be suspended for a year — a recommendation that was approved, the ruling said

Koeppel filed a federal lawsuit alleging that his constitutional rights had been violated. As an example, Thursday’s ruling said Koeppel argued that “Valencia’s policies violated his First Amendment rights because his messages to Jane were private, non-threatening speech, which did not cause a substantial interference at the school.”

But the appeals court said Koeppel invaded Jane Roe’s rights and that Valencia was not barred from disciplining him for conduct that occurred off-campus. Also, it pointed to Koeppel’s actions after being told by the deputy and dean to not contact the woman, saying the “worst aspect of Koeppel’s misbehavior was not the quantity of it but the fact that instead of controlling his impulses Koeppel continued to harass Jane, knowing that it was unwelcome and despite being told to leave her alone. He wouldn’t leave her alone.”
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