In the course of a year, Sherry Warner-Seefeld went from high school teacher to activist promoting fairness for students accused of sexual misconduct. Explaining why, for her, means revisiting a night of shock and a phone call she will never forget....
She was grading social science papers on a cold, late January evening in Fargo, N.D., when her cellphone rang, she told The Washington Post.
It was her son, Caleb Warner, calling to tell her he had heard from a dean at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. A woman with whom he had had a short sexual relationship, the dean told him, had accused him of sexual misconduct, of nonconsensual sex, that she alleged had occurred on the night of Dec. 13, 2009.
The charge was filed after the winter break in January 2010, his mother said, after he had “made it clear to her that he was not interested in having a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.” Then out of the blue this notice arrives, with its intimidating legal language.
It was in this context that Caleb Warner’s case played out, after his mother got that phone call.
“Three days later they get to this hearing. They found him guilty that night and he’s immediately expelled. He’s not to set foot on campus. He falls to the floor and starts crying. That’s what he did for hours, lay on the floor and sob, fall on the floor and sob.”
The case of Caleb Warner might have ended then and there and never become public but for what happened next.
The family learned that the young woman had repeated her complaint against Caleb to the Fargo police, which assigned a detective to interview her.
The police investigator found so many holes and contradictions in the woman’s version of events that the police and a prosecutor concluded she was lying and charged her with filing a false complaint. She failed to show up for a hearing, however, left town and has not been heard from again, according to Warner-Seefeld.
Surely this would save her son from expulsion, the family thought.
But when the university was informed of the woman’s alleged lies, it refused to reopen Caleb’s case, saying, among other things, that the fact that she was accused of lying to the police did not mean she did. Besides, Caleb’s deadline for appeal or rehearing had passed.
The experience inspired her to co-found, with other aggrieved mothers, an organization called FACE (Families Advocating for Campus Equality) designed to assist other parents who received similar phone calls and, bewildered and scared, don’t know where to turn.