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Lawsuit: UNL acted with 'deliberate indifference' in investigating reported sexual assault
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Lawsuit: UNL acted with 'deliberate indifference' in investigating reported sexual assault

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Over the last year, students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln have pointed to what they say are systemic failings in how the university investigates and addresses instances of sexual misconduct on its campus.

Last summer, the coalition of current and former students calling itself Dear UNL demanded the university reform what they say is a flawed Title IX process that places blame on victims and is too deferential to alleged perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment.

A lawsuit filed by an unnamed woman last week in Lancaster County District Court echoed the concerns of Dear UNL members, charging the university acted with "deliberate indifference" after she reported being drugged, raped and later stalked by another student in the fall semester of 2018.

The complaint was filed on behalf of an individual and not Dear UNL as a group, attorney Abby Osborn said, but in listing the plaintiff as "Jane Doe, and all other similarly situated," recognizes "there could be a class of individuals and the class may be certified at a coming date."

"We are finding that there is a systemic problem within the university as it relates to the rights of victims," Osborn said in a statement. "They need to be protected and the university's practice of ignoring the policies and procedures to protect victims needs to end."

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According to the lawsuit, the woman said she was unknowingly drugged and later sexually assaulted at the apartment of a male student — who is not being named because he has not been charged with a crime — in September 2018.

The man later began stalking the woman to friends’ apartments and at the College of Law where they were both enrolled, waiting for her as she left class or in the parking lot at dusk, the complaint alleges.

In October 2018, the woman told another law student about the stalking. That student relayed the information to Marc Pearce, an assistant dean for student affairs. Pearce reportedly spoke to the male student and indicated he would “pass a note” to UNL’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, which is responsible for investigating instances of sexual misconduct and harassment under Title IX.

No investigation was started until March 2019, however, six months after the sexual assault reportedly took place and two months after the woman described the incident to Pearce in a one-to-one meeting, according to the lawsuit.

When UNL finally opened an investigation, deputy Title IX coordinator and investigator Meagan Counley met first with the male student and his attorney in early May, according to the complaint. The two directed her to seek more information from the woman and her witnesses.

The information sought by the male student was not meant as evidence in the reported assault, according to the lawsuit, but as a means to “harass and shame” the woman and the witnesses she told about the incident, which she alleged amounted to retaliation.

In its findings letter, UNL said there had been no violation of the student code of conduct and that the Title IX office would not recommend any sanctions against the male student.

But the woman said the findings letter failed to address an anonymous report of stalking in October 2018; the failure of Pearce to report the incident until March 2019; and the failure to note any extenuating circumstances in extending the investigation beyond the recommended 60-day time frame.

“Counley’s findings essentially were that because the respondent denied the allegations Counley would not find in the plaintiff’s favor,” the lawsuit states.

The woman appealed the findings to Jake Johnson, UNL’s assistant vice chancellor for student affairs, who found no wrongdoing by the Title IX office, however.

The lawsuit also alleges former UNL Title IX Coordinator Tami Strickman, who took a job at the University of Michigan in January, failed to ensure her office "performed a neutral, timely and thorough investigation" of each claim made by the woman.

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It also lays blame at the feet of UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green, who "was directly notified of the continuous and serious deficiencies" of the Title IX office and Strickman — alluding to the letters sent by and meetings with members of Dear UNL in March and April 2019 — and former NU President Hank Bounds.

Neither Green nor Bounds took action to "address the deficiencies" of the Title IX office, according to the complaint. Monday, NU declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The woman said she later withdrew from UNL as a result of the university's actions and failure to implement and follow Title IX policies, and believes other female students "have been subjected to biased, untimely, insufficient and victim-blaming interviews" from investigators.

The lawsuit states UNL's actions were "so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive" it deprived her of an education at UNL in violation of Title IX, and violated her constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.

She's seeking an undefined amount of compensation and punitive damages, as well as an injunction requiring the university to "take effective steps to prevent sex-based discrimination and harassment" and "fully investigate conduct that may constitute sex-based harassment and/or sexual assault" on its campuses.

UPDATE March 3, 2020: UNL provided this statement: "We are confident in our overall Title IX processes. Every case is difficult and investigated based on the information made available. We cannot comment on the specifics of any Title IX investigation or pending litigation."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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