Parents are often terrified when they call Sherry Warner Seefeld.
They've just learned that a son — or daughter — has been accused of sexual assault at college. And they're deathly afraid of what may happen next.
Seefeld, a Minnesota native and the mother of four sons, knows what they're going through. Six years ago, she was one of those parents. Now she's on a mission to help other families in that same "horrific" spot, as the co-founder and president of Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE), a support group for the accused.
"Everybody wants to stop sexual assault, you know, everybody does," says Seefeld, 60, a retired high school teacher in Fargo, N.D. But on college campuses today, she says, the innocent have as much to fear as the guilty.
In the midst of a national outcry over campus rape, she says, students are being labeled sex offenders based on little more than an accusation.
Not one to mince words, she compares the atmosphere to Salem witch trials. "[There's] this hysteria where an accusation equates to guilt," she said. Even mention the rights of the accused, she says, and "there are people who are trying to twist that to, 'Oh, you're trying to protect rapists.' "
As a lifelong feminist, Seefeld, who grew up in Anoka, admits that she probably wouldn't have believed this six years ago. "If I had not gone through Caleb's situation, I would be on that other side," she said. But now, she's convinced that the crackdown on sexual assault is creating a new class of victims.
In some ways, Seefeld says, her son was lucky. The police didn't believe his accuser's story. But the University of North Dakota did.
In January 2010, a female student reported that she'd been sexually assaulted weeks before by Caleb Warner, then a 23-year-old business major.
The university promptly launched an investigation, and Warner, who said the sex was consensual, was summoned to a campus hearing.
"Caleb had 10 days to prepare his own defense," said his mother. He was allowed to bring an attorney, but the rules prohibited the lawyer from speaking up. "So Caleb is having to defend himself," she said. On Feb. 16, five days after the hearing, he got the verdict: He was found responsible for sexual assault and suspended for three years.
The case against him started to falter when the Grand Forks police got involved, and contradictions emerged in the woman's story. They learned that she had sent Warner a text message days after the alleged assault, indicating she wanted to have sex with him. Other details were contradicted by witnesses at the party.
One claim, that she had seen a "Little Caesar's" sign through his bedroom window, was ruled out by police; they found the sign couldn't be seen from his room.
In May 2010, authorities took the unusual step of accusing the accuser of lying. She was charged with filing a false police report, and when she left the state, a warrant was issued for her arrest. Six years later, that warrant is still pending.
Yet the university stood by its suspension, refusing to reopen his case. Seefeld was incredulous. She started "marching up and down the state," telling the story to lawmakers, state officials and anyone who would listen. "I thought people would be outraged to know that this was happening," she said.
Still, it took more than a year, and the threat of a lawsuit, before the university backed down and lifted Warner's punishment. The university declined to comment, citing privacy laws.
Her son never went back to school. But Seefeld had found a new cause. In 2014, she joined with two other mothers with similar stories to found FACE, the support group. As its president, she spends much of her time counseling other families and lobbying for more legal protections for students in campus tribunals.
"What our family went through and what my son went through was horrific," she said. Her goal, she said, is to restore a sense of balance on college campuses. "We don't want rapists to get off scot-free," Seefeld adds. "We also want to make sure people who are not guilty don't get swept into the path of the bus and squished, either."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384