The phone call that changes everything

Aug. 16, 2021 By Andrew Miltenberg

It seems like just yesterday that proud parents unpacked the last box, straightened the bedspread on an unforgivingly firm mattress, and gave their son a final wave goodbye as he headed into the dorm to start freshman year. Little did either of them expect the telephone call he’d make a few weeks later.

“Mom, there’s an email going around. I don’t know who sent it,” he said, trying to keep his wavering voice in check. “It says I raped someone.”

I’ve had dozens of students tell me about that phone call. In a few words, what had been the most exciting months of their lives – living away at college, out of Mom and Dad’s prying glances and free to enjoy the company of new male and female friends – turned into a life-altering hell.

Decisions made in the hours after that phone call are among the most important students and their parents will ever make. Everything the student has worked for and dreamed of – a college degree from a good university; law, medical, or business school; a terrific first job with plenty of opportunity – is on the line.

Perhaps the most important decision is the next call that students and parents should make: the call to an attorney with deep experience handling accusations of sexual misconduct at colleges and universities.

Sexual assault cases at college aren’t like accusations brought by police or local prosecutors back home. An entirely different set of rules, stemming from a federal education law known for short as Title IX, apply on campus. Attorneys who don’t routinely handle Title IX cases might be caught by surprise in college disciplinary hearings – and so will their clients.

A parent recently shared with me the questions she asked before she selected me to represent her son. Here’s what she considered:

“What is the firm’s overall Title IX experience? Essentially, we needed to be assured that the firm had full command of the legal landscape that surrounded Title IX and enough experience that little would shock or surprise them. We wanted total expertise.

“What is the firm’s philosophy when dealing with college disciplinary hearings? How would you characterize your style? We were looking for balanced aggressiveness – fight and protect.

“Describe how you collaborate with your clients. How well does the firm work with the student and parents? We were extremely invested in the process already and were lucky to have an exceptionally close relationship with our son. My husband and I were a non-negotiable part of the package.

“How involved or informed is the firm with current Title IX policy issues or discussions? Our family’s experience began during a very charged national conversation about #MeToo and proposed reforms to Title IX. While we were unsure how that tension would affect our son’s case, we wanted to maximize all available leverage.

“Based on a few email exchanges and phone calls, could we envision a productive relationship with these people? We understood that we faced a potentially long, difficult process filled with hard conversations, potential setbacks, and the looming threat of having to file a federal lawsuit. This partnership needed to be solid.”

This parent had several extended conversations with me and Marybeth Sydor, a consultant who regularly works with me on Title IX cases. Marybeth “patiently walked me through their process and thoroughly addressed every concern on our list,” the parent recalled. “I was completely overwhelmed, physically exhausted, and very nearly numb when I heard her say, ‘We think we can help your son.’ After all of the research and the checklists and the interviews and the heated debates, it came down to hearing those words.”

If you or your child are accused of sexual assault at a college or university, contact Nesenoff & Miltenberg LLP at our offices in New York, Boston, or Palo Alto. My colleagues and I are ready to help.