I am currently a graduate student in a medium research university. I experienced a false accusation in college, and would like to know how I could've handled it better.
In my sophomore year, I took a class (around 50 students) which had a student who was physically impaired and required an electric wheelchair to move around. Due to the size of the class and the nature of the course, I rarely interacted with her. I only remember two separate occasions: once, when she asked me of the office hours of the lecturer, to which I responded that I wasn't sure, and another time, where I held open a door for her, but apparently she wasn't going in that direction. After she had passed, I went into the classroom and began my own work.
Around one month into the semester, she didn't show up. I didn't think of it - attendance wasn't marked. However, at the end of the lecture, the professor immediately asked me to report to the Dean's office.
When I arrived, several senior administrators and the Chief Diversity Officer were there. They immediately began questioning, "where were you/what were you doing at x time?" I replied with the truth to the best of my ability and, halfway through, got the courage to ask why I was there.
I was told that the administration was looking into a report of sexual harassment and creating a hostile environment. I had never been part of any fraternity or social group that had any such reputation, and felt like a deer in headlights.
I was later told that the student in a wheelchair was the one who had reported me, and several of her friends backed her up. She did not show up for several weeks after, and later left the college. Every other day, a member of the administration would summon me and ask me to "confess". I was never told what exactly I was accused of. After two weeks, I buckled and did what she asked - wrote separate apologies acknowledging I was responsible for creating a hostile environment, CC'ed to every professor I had up to that point along with senior administration.
I am certain this event has influenced the recommendation letters I had asked for and negatively impacted my graduate applications.
Due to this incident, I am extremely careful around people with physical or mental impairments and avoid them at all costs.
I would like to ask:
What other ways could I have dealt with the situation? I believe acknowledging something I did not do was the biggest mistake, but I did not know how else to handle this.
What probable events could have caused this? Was I mistaken for someone else? Did she simply want an excuse to leave college?
What should I have learned from this?
This was at a T20 university in the United States.