Ten years ago, Alyssa Reid landed her dream job: assistant director of the speech and debate team at James Madison University (JMU). She also became a faculty member of the School of Communication Studies, where she met a student named Kathryn Lese.
Lese took Reid's speech class in the spring of 2013. The two quickly became best friends. The following year, Lese graduated from JMU and accepted a graduate teaching position with the speech and debate team. The pair worked closely together as friends and colleagues, and traveled together for events.
One night, during a trip to New Jersey for a forensics tournament, Lese told Reid that despite being in a relationship with a man, she was a lesbian, and had developed feelings for her, according to Reid. Though initially reluctant to put their friendship at risk, Reid says she eventually came to reciprocate Lese's feelings.
"When she first told me that she had feelings for me, I immediately told her that we can't be in a relationship," says Reid. "But she was very persistent and eventually it just became a reality after time."
They dated for two and a half years, living together for much of that time.
The relationship ended badly, causing both women much consternation. Almost a year later, on December 4, 2018, Lese filed a Title IX report with JMU. This report then became the basis of a sexual misconduct complaint, and Reid was accused of engaging in a nonconsensual relationship with her former girlfriend.
JMU suspended Reid from teaching. Then, following a hearing where Reid was given no meaningful opportunity to rebut the allegations against her—Lese did not even attend it—the university determined she had violated an aspect of the sexual misconduct policy that had not even existed during the time period in question.
The finding made it impossible for Reid to continue working at JMU; indeed, she had already been denied a promotion and barred from campus. She was hired at another university, sold her house, and moved—but when her new employer found out about the sexual misconduct finding, the offer was abruptly rescinded.
"I was let go a week before the semester began," she says.
Reid is now suing JMU, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, which pushed colleges and universities to adopt unfair sexual misconduct adjudication policies during the years of Barack Obama's presidency. The lawsuit comes at a time of profound national uncertainty about the trajectory of federal education policy as it relates to Title IX, the statute that prohibits sex and gender-based discrimination in schools. Under Obama, the Education Department instructed campus officials to vigorously investigate sexual misconduct, define it broadly, and give accused persons very little recourse. Then, under former President Donald Trump, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the Obama-era policies and made basic fairness a central component of Title IX adjudication.
Now Joe Biden is president, and he has selected Catherine Lhamon as his Title IX enforcer. The name should be familiar to readers: Lhamon had the exact same job during the Obama era. As assistant secretary for civil rights within the Education Department, she enforced the policies that prompted hundreds of students and professors to sue their institutions after being removed from campus following the sorts of ordeals that Reid faced. No single government official bears more responsibility than Lhamon, and Biden would like to give her back her old job.
Educators and bureaucrats like Lhamon have good intentions, of course. Purging schools of sexual misconduct is a noble goal. Reid herself strongly believed in the mission, describing herself as an advocate.
"I still believe victims and survivors," she says. "I guess I can't not."
But becoming the target of a false accusation has broadened her perspective. At the very least, the Title IX process needs to be reformed, she thinks.
"I'm not the only person that's been in a situation like this before," she says. "It's just heartbreaking."
One of the oddest aspects of the complaint against Reid was that the university had already settled the basic question of whether the relationship was inappropriate—and settled it in Reid's favor.
In May 2016—while the couple was dating—someone else at the university lodged a complaint about them. The university investigated the matter, and the communications department determined that since Reid and Lese were colleagues and not part of a supervisor-employee or teacher-student arrangement, they were free to date.
"They had already investigated this relationship," says Harriet Hageman, Reid's attorney and a senior litigation counsel at the nonpartisan New Civil Liberties Alliance. "Under the existing rules, there was no problem with this relationship between two consenting adults."
Lese's December 2018 complaint, however, asked the university to reconsider the matter. According to Reid's lawsuit, Lese was highly vengeful following the breakup, and out to ruin Reid's life. Nevertheless, the complaint did not allege any specific violation of JMU policy, according to Reid. (Lese did not respond to a request for comment.)
"[Lese] never used any of the terminology that JMU subsequently used in the Title IX proceedings," says Reid. "She identifies our relationship as a romantic relationship and she admitted that it ended on not good terms. I think that's pretty much her exact expression. That somehow became JMU's open door to file a non-consensual relationship claim."
For the next two months, JMU compiled a case against Reid. Investigators instructed her to begin preparing her defense, though they did not spell out the charges. They also asked her to find witnesses to speak on her behalf, which was a challenge, since Reid had no idea what aspects of her behavior were under scrutiny. She was not given access to Lese's statement until after her witnesses were interviewed, she says.
A hearing was set for March 13, 2019. Reid was told that she could not cross-examine Lese directly; she would need to pose her questions to the hearing's chair instead. She was denied the right to have an active attorney present: The Title IX coordinator permitted a "support person" to attend, but this individual was barred from playing any role in the hearing, according to Reid's lawsuit.
Prior to the hearing, Reid thought long and hard about what kinds of questions she would ask the panel to pose to Lese—indeed, her entire defense rested on this line of inquiry. But it was all for naught: neither Lese nor any of Lese's witnesses attended the hearing.
On April 1, 2019, the panel found Reid responsible for violating JMU's "Policy 1340," which prohibits nonconsensual relationships. Reid found this verdict curious, since Policy 1340 had not come into existence until September 2016; the complaint against her referred to events that took place between November 2015 and May 2016.
"That's the ex post facto part of this," says Hageman.
Reid's punishment was a reprimand, but she was also denied the opportunity to apply for a promotion. Humiliated and rejected, she felt she had little choice but to leave JMU. (A spokesperson for the university declined to comment, citing pending litigation.)
Years later, it's still difficult for Reid to talk about what happened; she began to cry as she recounted the details of her departure from JMU. And life became no easier afterward: She was hired by another university, and then fired after the sexual misconduct finding became public.
"My next career was also ruined," says Reid. "I had to cash out my 401(k) and find a completely different job."
Reid's lawsuit alleges that JMU violated her due process rights, and names various university officials as defendants. (None responded to a request for comment.) Her lawsuit also targets the Department of Education for pushing the Title IX sexual misconduct standards that she thinks produced this outcome.
Reid is hardly alone. Hundreds of university students and professors have sued their institutions for denying them due process under such circumstances; more than half of them have won. Judges often find the elements of Title IX hearings to be confounding. In a 2018 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that the University of Michigan had wrongly prohibited cross-examination and must instead provide opportunities for the accuser and the accused to question one another.
"Title IX is a very simple statute—you read it, you know what it means," says Hageman. "It has been turned on its head. It has been used in such a bizarre way. Schools and universities are simply not equipped to move forward with these kinds of life altering proceedings."
The new Title IX guidance, which was codified by the Trump administration in August 2020, made cross-examination a fundamental component of such hearings. But it's not clear whether Biden administration will uphold this standard. In July, Lhamon told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) that the Title IX rules did not include any presumption of innocence. She eventually conceded that adjudicators should merely be "open to the possibility" that an accused person was telling the truth.
The committee deadlocked on whether to advance Lhamon's nomination, leaving her fate in the hands of Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who could still motion for a full Senate vote on her confirmation. Cases like Reid's show precisely why it would be reckless to put Lhamon back in charge: Fundamental civil liberties are at stake.
Hageman notes that she doesn't object to Title IX as the law was originally intended—on the contrary, she's grateful for it. In 1972, when Title IX went into effect, Hageman was in junior high. The new law prohibited sex-based discrimination, and compelled Hageman's school to add athletic programs and clubs for young girls.
"Title IX isn't really the problem in my opinion," she says. "It's how it's interpreted and applied in this circumstance. They've gone so far overboard."