Saddleback College wins Title IX appeal against Marcus Knight

Marcus Knight and Mark Hathaway at the Orange County Superior Court Nov. 2019. Mark Hathaway/courtesy

Marcus Knight, a student at Saddleback, faced suspension in 2019 for allegations of sexual misconduct made by three complainants to faculty and administrators. A Peremptory Writ of Mandate was issued on Nov. 22, 2019, based on the appellate court decision.

The Court concluded that the findings and sanctions issued by Respondents [Saddleback College and Juan Avalos] against [Marcus Knight] should be set aside, the Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Bauer ruled on Nov. 19, 2019.

Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.

Title IX violations include unwanted sexual behavior, advances or requests for favors; unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical sexual conduct; offensive, severe, or frequent remarks about a person’s sex and harassment of a sexual nature which interferes with an individual’s right to an education and participation in a program or activity.

The complainants in the Saddleback College Title IX case declined to testify. However, Saddleback initiated sanctions against Knight, including suspension from campus. Although the immediate threat of suspension was lifted, a letter of reprimand was placed in Knight’s permanent student file. His mother, Aurora Knight, filed the initial lawsuit once she retained an attorney.

“Ignorance, prejudice and an unwillingness for acceptance by the administration is the problem,” she said. “Fist bumps and selfies are not inappropriate sexual behavior. Marcus always asked permission, and if someone didn’t want to engage, they could have said ‘No.’”

Saddleback regulations on harassment include inappropriate or offensive touching, assault, or physical interference with free movement. This may include, but is not limited to, kissing, patting, lingering or intimate touches, grabbing, pinching, leering, staring, unnecessarily brushing against or blocking another person, whistling or sexual gestures. 

Kassidy Ordish and Marcus Knight as homecoming queen and king at ANHS graduation night 2016. Aurora Knight/courtesy

Knight graduated from Aliso Niguel High School in 2017. He has autism, cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. He received his diploma, three scholarships and was active in theater and choir. The Orange County Register named Knight as “Artist of the Week” on March 10, 2017. 

“He was homecoming king at graduation where thousands of friends and admirers cheered him on,” Knight’s mother said.

On July 19, 1999, Marcus Knight opened his eyes for the first time in the NICU at Saddleback Memorial Hospital in Laguna Hills. Aurora Knight/courtesy

Knight was born at 26 weeks, weighing only 1.5 pounds, with a level three and four brain bleed requiring a shunt to relieve pressure. His doctors told his mother that he would remain in a vegetative state, yet she refused to believe them. She and Marcus have a motto, “Never give up.”

“He is the strongest person I know,” Knight’s mother said. “The first year at a new school is always the hardest where IQ tests and evaluations repeatedly had to be administered. I had to fight for him to be placed in ‘normal’ classes rather than ‘nonfunctioning’ classes every time. I met with terrible administrators but fantastic teachers at each school.”

The skills he had learned in high school, fist bumps and taking selfies, were socially acceptable. With his best friend and mentor, Phil Englert, he learned to recognize many social cues that are difficult, if not impossible, for persons with autism to understand.

Englert came to California from Colorado to attend film school at Chapman University and attained a film production degree. He then began a career in broadcasting, film and TV. He started working on a documentary where one of the featured cast was Knight and his mother.

“I really fell in love with them and their story and Marcus’ sweet personality and the person he has become through all of his adversity,” Englert said. “I was eating my lunch, and I felt a voice that said, don’t leave today without getting Marcus’ contact info and connecting with him and his mother, and so I did. I was moved to tears by his passion and his song choice.”

Englert approached Aurora after filming in Aliso Viejo, where Knight sang “If I Can’t Love Her” from Beauty and the Beast. He told her that he would like to spend time with them and get to know Marcus more. At first, his mother was apprehensive but did allow them to get together.

They met and began playing “Mario Kart” and “Wii Tennis” video games. Eventually, Marcus’ mother became comfortable with him and invited him into the family. Englert joined the church choir, where Marcus sang. He taught him meditation techniques to help focus on doing his homework and express himself with what he was feeling internally on how to ‘connect with the world.’

Marcus Knight with his mentor and friend, Philip Englert at Dave and Buster’s for a “Bro’s night out.” Phil Englert/courtesy

“I’m not Catholic, but I went and helped him set up his stand and music as he has difficulty maneuvering equipment with his cerebral palsy,” Englert said. “From there, our friendship really blossomed. We have a ‘bro’s night out’ often  at Chili’s, but his favorite place to go is Dave and Buster’s.”

Englert worked with Knight before his auditions on his performance and learning his lyrics and presentation. He taught him how to engage in conversations by introducing him to asking questions and then following up. 

“He was really loved in high school even though he encountered a lot of cruelty, just like at Saddleback, none of which he asked for,” Englert said. “All he ever wanted was friends and a stage to perform on. When he was younger, he was viewed as a kid, and people gave him a little more slack,  but adult years have been more difficult for him.”

In high school, Knight was encouraged and invited to events where he felt he belonged. 

“People did not pity him but watched him try to become a better actor, singer and performer,” Englert said. “Watching Marcus overcome and persevere puts everything in my life into perspective — every time I see him, it is like a dose of inspiration. His strongest attribute in my eyes is courage.”

Aurora Knight and Marcus Knight in a performance of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Renaissance Theatre Company in Laguna Niguel. Aurora Knight/courtesy

Mrs. Knight contacted attorney Mark Hathaway in September 2018 after Saddleback College requested Knight and his mother to an administrative hearing. It was at that time she retained counsel rather than attend the hearing. On Nov. 22, 2019, Hathaway filed a lawsuit against Saddleback College and Juan Avalos in the superior court to appeal their ruling of the letter of censure and other accusations.

“Respondent Juan Avalos was named in his official capacity as Vice President for Student Services and Title IX Officer because he is responsible for enforcing discipline against Saddleback College students,” Hathaway said in an email. “He was personally responsible for the investigation, adjudication and improper discipline of Marcus Knight. An individual is often named in their official capacity so that there is a real person who the court can order to take some action, not just the college bureaucracy.”

The South Coast Community College District appealed that superior court judge’s decision to the Court of Appeals, and the ruling was made in favor of Saddleback College’s appeal of the initial court ruling. The judges’ opinion in the case reversing the initial ruling of Respondents [Saddleback College and Juan Avalos] against [Marcus Knight], outlined a more formal set of rules to address student conduct cases regarding due process.

“We have no doubt that if Saddleback had suspended Knight without a hearing of this kind, he would be entitled to have his suspension set aside. Absent an imminent threat, a school cannot suspend first and ask questions later,” a ruling written by acting Presiding Justice William W. Bedsworth. “But in this case, Knight was not in any real way suspended – that is, he was not barred from campus or from his classes.  The only consequence he suffered was a written reprimand.”

This case has already served as an exemplar in recent cases that Hathaway and Parker Law Firm have represented in court with other clients regarding proper due process procedures.

“This opinion affects all student conduct decisions, not only Title IX cases, of a serious infraction — which is a suspension of more than ten days — that the school has to provide a formal hearing with cross-examination and evidence, not just make a decision behind closed doors,” Hathaway said. “What is significant about that is it is based on a Supreme Court decision, Goss v. Lopez, that specifically applies that case to student conduct matters in the state of California.”

The letter of reprimand, which will remain in his file for some time, is not what concerns Hathaway. It is the threat of suspension and the removal from campus and the unfair investigation and the administrative process he endured which will serve as a precedent for future cases.

“This process has devastated Knight and his mother as it was totally unnecessary,” Hathaway said. “He struggled to fit in on campus and has now become afraid of anyone in uniform. He used to meet people by doing fist bumps because that is all he can really do or by taking selfies and today he is reluctant to meet people and participate. A lot of what gave him joy at succeeding in life was robbed by what the Saddleback administrators put him through.

Knight’s mother is not happy about the letter of reprimand in her son’s file and plans to appeal until it is removed permanently. Knight does not plan to attend Saddleback in the future.

“Although my son struggles with this event in his life, he wants to complete his college education, go back on stage singing and have people smiling around him again,” Mrs. Knight said.”He is currently enrolled in private online classes for theater and choir to keep up his skills.”

Update: This article was updated on March 3 with the correct facts regarding the reversal of the initial ruling in the court case.