News and Commentary

Autistic College Student Punished For Fist Bumps And Selfies Gets Upsetting News In Court
Marcus Knight was accused of sexual harassment after asking to take selfies with a fellow community college student.
Aurora Knight via GoFundMe

Marcus Knight has always wanted to make friends, which has been difficult since he has autism and cerebral palsy. In high school, he was taught that approaching people and asking for selfies or fist bumps was an acceptable way for him to make friends.

In college, however, with today’s focus on victimhood and students’ desire to never feel the least bit “uncomfortable,” Marcus’ learned behavior has been deemed inappropriate. In the fall of 2017, Marcus was a student at Saddleback College with dreams of graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theater, as singing on stage has always been a joy to him.

In October of that year, Marcus was accused by a student-worker, referred to in court documents only as N.R., of following her and invading her personal space by putting his arm around her shoulder and allegedly trying to put his hand on her thigh. N.R. understood Marcus’ disability and that he meant no harm, so she wanted the matter solved informally. She and Marcus entered into a mutual no-contact order, which Marcus didn’t appear to fully understand, as he continued his attempts to become N.R.’s friend. She again complained about Marcus and said she no longer wanted to be on campus because of him. Marcus wrote a letter of apology, describing himself as “very lonely and depressed” and simply wanting to “make friends.”

Marcus’ mother, Aurora, arranged for him to have an attendant begin accompanying him to classes the next week. Marcus was already driven to and from his classes by school officials on a golf cart due to his mobility issues – he can’t walk for long distances.

N.R. no longer appears to have had an issue with Marcus after his apology letter, but two weeks later, another female student, referred to only as M.G., claimed Marcus was following her around and taking pictures of her in the class they shared, though Aurora disputes the possibility of this wording. Marcus couldn’t have followed M.G. around since he was escorted to and from class and had an attendant with him in classes, and the pictures he had of M.G. were taken with her — as selfies. Marcus’ numerous photos of M.G. were because he accidentally hit the “burst” function on his phone’s camera, which instantly takes hundreds of photos.

Nevertheless, Marcus was again called in for a meeting with school officials to discuss M.G.’s complaint and explained that an investigation had been launched. Marcus would be deemed “responsible or not responsible” for allegedly “following [M.G. around,” taking “over 300 unauthorized pictures of her,” and “forcefully plac[ing] your hand on her shoulder while taking a selfie with her.” Worded as deviously as possible, the allegations amounted to Marcus asking for a selfie with M.G. and putting his arm around her shoulder as he did so, as most people would, and then accidentally hitting the “burst” function.

When M.G. was interviewed as part of the allegation, she claimed that because Marcus asked for a photo with her at the beginning of every class — again, something he had learned to do to try to make friends — she started thinking he might be doing something else with the photos. Marcus is not capable of understanding such a thought; the motive was put onto him by M.G. and Saddleback administrators.

Aurora was devastated to learn that Saddleback would be investigating her son as if he were a sexual harasser and accused the college of discriminating against her son for his disabilities.

In the investigation report finalized on March 8, 2018, Saddleback explained that Marcus “and his mother have an expectation that our community college can provide a secure learning environment much like their high school experiences. Unfortunately, the campus and the student body is simply too large. There is an expectation that all of [Knight’s] instructors explain [his] need for selfie taking, which is an unreasonable request.”

Marcus would only have a handful of instructors each semester, raising questions as to how “unreasonable” it would be for them to simply explain the situation.

As Aurora told me, the instructor in this particular class never reported Marcus as being disruptive during class.

The investigative report recommended Marcus be suspended for the rest of the 2018 spring semester. Marcus and Aurora were informed there could be a hearing to finalize those recommendations. Panicked, Aurora hired an attorney to defend Marcus, and in August, the Knights were informed that the hearing was canceled because M.G. was no longer available, as she was no longer a student at Saddleback.

Without the hearing regarding the allegations, Saddleback decided not to suspend Marcus but to still discipline him by including a “disciplinary notice stating expectations with regard to [his] future conduct.”

For Aurora, this was unacceptable. It was a black mark on Marcus’ permanent record that she believed would hold him back from achieving his dreams, as it appeared as though he had done something wrong, when she contended he hadn’t.

“What happens when Marcus tries to transfer to a four-year university? Will the accusations follow him? I am terrified for his future,” Aurora told reporter Toni Airaksinen more than a year ago.

She sued, and in November 2019, The Daily Wire reported that the court sided with Marcus and ordered Saddleback to set aside “the findings and sanctions” against Marcus. The news meant everything to Aurora, who raised Marcus as a single mother and who only wants what’s best for her son.

“He is smiling!” Aurora said after the short trial that led to the court decision. “After court Mark [Hathaway] took a selfie with Marcus. Then we told Marcus he could do a selfie too … he was afraid to do so. But we told him that it was ok, and he finally did!  He wants a fist bump and selfie party!”

Hathaway is Marcus’ attorney.

For a while, things seemed to have gone Marcus’ way, but Saddleback appealed the court’s decision and last week, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that Saddleback no longer had to remove the disciplinary notice from Marcus’ file. The court argued – in documents shared with The Daily Wire – that Marcus didn’t have a right to the due process he would have received during a hearing because it was canceled, even though it meant he received the disciplinary notice. The court also argued that there are no “decisions” or “sanctions” to set aside, arguing those referred to the suspension that never happened. The lower court, however, was working off the facts of the case, so the understood meaning of “decisions” and “sanctions” referred to the disciplinary letter.

This means that Marcus will still have the note in his file. The news was devastating for Aurora, who called me panicking and crying that Marcus was still being viewed as a disciplinary problem.

“I am upset because all this is insanely absurd,” Aurora told me. “[Saddleback] knew that Marcus has limited expressive language… but the fact that he IS SPECIAL is automatically assumed [to be] doing something wrong.”

Hathaway provided The Daily Wire his exclusive take on the ruling, noting that while it ignored much of what Marcus has been through, it might help future students who have been treated unfairly.

“The Marcus Knight opinion cites every significant decision enforcing student and faculty rights in university and college discipline and explains that before imposing severe sanctions, schools must provide ‘second-level due process,’ – which includes first-level due process as well as a formal hearing with witnesses and cross-examination,” Hathaway said in an email.

For now, Saddleback’s reprimand letter remains in Marcus’ file, but he and Aurora plan to appeal the latest decision.

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