A former University of Nebraska-Lincoln student is suing the school for failing to stop a retaliation campaign against her after she reported being sexually assaulted and harassed by a member of the faculty.
The federal lawsuit, filed in Nebraska on Sunday by an international student who pursued a Ph.D. in UNL’s Mechanical and Materials Engineering program between 2014-17, alleges she faced years of harassment by her adviser.
When she went to UNL’s Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, which is charged with investigating reports of sexual misconduct on campus by students and employees alike, the student said she was met with indifference by Title IX investigators and pressured to drop her case.
The latest lawsuit follows a Title IX complaint filed by nine women, former and current students at UNL, including some Husker student-athletes, who also alleged the university failed to adequately respond to and investigate their claims of sex discrimination.
The 44-page complaint, filed by Michigan-based attorneys Karen Truszkowski and Elizabeth Abdnour, says an unidentified faculty member began to sexually harass the student, and at one point, cornered her and kissed her shortly after she started at UNL.
The faculty member was about 60 years old at the time; the student was 26 and married.
According to the lawsuit, the faculty member continued to pursue a romantic relationship with her, sending her inappropriate text messages and recommending she watch a movie where a wife cheats on her husband, and repeatedly hugged her, told her he loved her, and kicked her legs.
The student continually rebuffed his advances, after which he started a retaliation campaign against her, the complaint states, demoting her on a paper she was working on, cutting her research position, and influencing how other faculty interacted with her.
She was later advised to report the faculty member to the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance, and in 2016 met with Susan Foster, who was then the Title IX coordinator, as well as Tami Strickman, an investigator with the office who would later become the coordinator.
As part of the investigation, the student turned over dozens of emails and documents detailing the ongoing harassment.
“At the beginning of the Title IX process (the student) felt that her harassment was finally coming to an end so she could continue her education in peace,” the lawsuit states. “However, (she) soon learned that Strickman and Foster had no intention of addressing the harassment she faced.”
According to the complaint, investigators at the office stopped answering her emails and phone calls, and when she went to the Title IX office to inquire about the status of her case, she said Strickman addressed her with an angry tone that made her “feel like she was the harasser rather than the victim.”
The Title IX investigators also pressured the student to drop her case and not tell anyone about the harassment, the lawsuit states, and encouraged her to call rather than email the office — possibly to avoid creating public records under Nebraska’s open government statutes.
As the investigation continued, the student said she continued to be harassed by the faculty member.
UNL’s Title IX investigators later found the faculty member had violated university policy with regards to sexual harassment, but according to the complaint, mischaracterized or underplayed several of the incidents of harassment and retaliation against her.
When the student pursued a hearing with a faculty panel to reverse her demotion, the complaint says she was told by Judy Walker, an associate vice chancellor, she would lose the university's support, which she feared could put her student visa status in jeopardy.
She also continued to face harassment on campus from the faculty member despite a no-contact directive, the lawsuit states, and both she and her husband left the university the next year.
The lawsuit alleges UNL violated the student’s Title IX rights by depriving her of a right to education and a right to free speech by telling her financial support for her was in jeopardy if she continued pushing for an investigation, and denied her right to due process and equal protection.
In a statement, UNL said the health and safety of all students is of the "upmost importance" to the campus.
“We have a strong Title IX process and are confident in it. Every case is difficult and investigated based on the information made available," a UNL spokeswoman said in a statement. "We cannot comment on the specifics of any Title IX investigation or on pending litigation.”
The student is seeking a jury trial to award damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress, medical and pharmaceutical expenses, a loss of education and opportunities, loss of employment and earning capacity, and other damages.
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