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Current lawsuit echoes landmark 1991 case

Carleton has recently been the subject of a lawsuit that alleges the College violated federal and state law as well as its own policies in the way it handled two rape cases. Responses were immediate. Dean Carol Livingston sent out an all-campus email outlining all the resources available to sexual assault victims on campus, concluding that “no one on this campus should feel frightened or unsupported.” A pdf of the lawsuit has been circulated and shared on Facebook, sparking dialogue among the Carleton community. A pre-existing petition for Carleton to hire a full-time Title IX coordinator gained traction.

 

Repercussions of the lawsuit

The future of the lawsuit is uncertain. All members of the administration declined to comment on the litigation itself, except for media relations director Eric Sieger, who said: “Carleton and its legal team are preparing a response to file with the court sometime in the next several weeks.”

Title IX coordinator and dean Julie Thornton said that an internal investigation into the school’s execution of its sexual assault policies had never happened in her memory. It is unclear who would carry out such an investigation, as Thornton as well as class deans Joe Baggot and Cathy Carlson are named in the lawsuit, and Carleton policy on this is unclear. When asked if the lawsuit would prompt policy change in the administration, Sieger said, “As a matter of course, the College regularly updates its policies and training in relation to Title IX.”

 

Current sexual misconduct policy

The sexual misconduct policy as it stands today is the result of ongoing work by the Title IX Lead Team, which responds to allegations of sexual misconduct, and the Title IX Visioning Team, which looks at the College’s sexual misconduct policies and procedures. These two teams work to keep Carleton’s policies in line with federal law and to respond to students’ concerns about the policies, according to Title IX coordinator and dean Julie Thornton.

Thornton emphasized that the administration is fluid and responsive, always changing policy to meet the students’ needs. For example, the administration has recently begun bystander intervention training, called Green Dot training, for sports teams and interested students.

The most recent revisions to the policy occurred in May in order to follow federal Title IX requirements and to respond to student comments from campus climate surveys. Before that, Carleton made changes in 2010 in response to a student letter-writing campaign to the Dean of Students office.


1991 case against Carleton

Despite the policy changes of the past decades, some of the allegations in the current lawsuit filed against Carleton are echoed in the last lawsuit filed against Carleton for violating Title IX. In 1991, this lawsuit was brought by four women who said they were assaulted, while attending Carleton, and that the administration did not adequately protect them from their assaulters.

As a result of the suit, in July 1992, the Campus Sexual Assault Victims’ Bill of Rights became federal law. The plaintiffs and the College settled out of court. As part of the settlement, the College outlined changes it would make to its sexual misconduct policies and practices, according to a 1992 article in The Voice.

The 1991 suit alleged that the dean discouraged victims from pressing criminal charges and instead emphasized that the victims should let Carleton handle the case internally, according to a 1991 New York Times article. Similarly, the 2016 suit alleged that a dean discouraged the victim from doing anything when she reported an assault, saying that the alleged assailant would graduate in two months and that she should instead focus on her grades because she was in danger of being suspended for academic failure.

As a result of the settlement, the 1992 policy changes also include reporting all sexual assault cases to the police regardless of whether or not the victim later decides to have the matter investigated or prosecuted. Current Carleton policy leaves reporting to the police entirely up to the victim. The 1991 lawsuit claimed that the College knew the alleged assaulters posed a threat to campus safety and did not sufficiently act on this knowledge. It especially criticized the College for a policy that allowed a student to commit two sexual assaults before being expelled, according to an article published in the Associated Press in 1991. This claim was addressed in the 1992 policy changes, which acknowledge that the College should combat the safety concerns surrounding a victim confronting his/her assailant and should address the safety concerns present in letting assailants remain on campus.

However, the current lawsuit claims that the administration did not properly protect the victim after she reported the rape. As in the 1991 suit, the assailant was not suspended or dismissed and instead remained on campus, with a no-contact order. The current lawsuit further alleges that the College did not adequately discipline the assailant when he was found to be in violation of a no-contact order against the victim. In the 1992 settlement, the College vowed to allow victims to receive the support of professionally trained counselors when making choices about how to proceed with their cases, to increase the resources available for victims and to make victims more aware of these resources, according to the 1992 The Voice article.

However, in the current case, the plaintiff claims that counselors did not make her aware of how she could proceed with her case, that the administration was not properly trained or supervised on how to support her as a victim and that she was not informed of the resources available to her as a victim. Particularly, she alleges that she was not advised of the support she deserved under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

She also describes the effects of PTSD and anxiety, effects which the lawsuit says were worsened by the presence of her assailant on campus. She often stayed in her room, even skipping classes, if she felt that she might accidentally run into her assailant in a public space. The lawsuit says that while her appointed sexual misconduct support advisor, a dean, tried to help, the advice she received was entirely out of proportion with what she was going through, such as advice to advice to talk with her professors or “take deep breaths.”

 

Students write petition

Prior to the recent lawsuit, students expressed dissatisfaction with the College’s response to sexual misconduct and its failure to provide a full-time Title IX coordinator. The current Title IX coordinator, Julie Thornton, divides her time between serving as the current sophomore class dean and acting as Title IX intermediary for the College.

One month ago and weeks before the filing of the lawsuit, Mollie Wetherall ’16 helped write a petition to Carleton’s administration for a full-time Title IX coordinator on campus. “It was started after years of hearing concerns around Julie Thornton, current Title IX coordinator, being visibly under supported by the campus administration,” she said. “Deans work long hours, and combining this position with that of Title IX coordinator negatively impacts implementation of Title IX procedure.”

A full-time Title IX coordinator “would allow students to be more fully supported in their pursuit of Title IX cases, allow the coordinator to spend more time learning about the idiosyncrasies of a very complicated piece of legislation, and it would cultivate an environment in which students are able to trust that their cases are being given the unconditional attention they deserve,” she said.

Many students reacted with frustration after learning about lawsuit, and Wetherall’s petition began circulating again shortly after the lawsuit was filed. At the time this article was written, the petition had 347 signatures, with a goal to reach 500 signatures. Ryan Gorey ’17, who has worked with the Gender and Sexuality Center (GSC) on sexual violence prevention, encouraged people to sign the petition and advocated for conversations with the College administration.

“When I read the lawsuit, it was really discouraging,” said Gorey. “It was honestly disturbing, reading everything in it and reading the responses to what the plaintiff went through,” he said.

After Dean Livingston sent an email in response to the lawsuit Tuesday, May 3rd, Gorey published an open letter to Livingston in the CLAP. Gorey wrote the letter because “I thought that it wasn’t a productive email to send,” he said.

“Last year, it felt like things were moving forward, but it was also pretty clear when we were working with the Title IX Lead Team how stretched thin they were,” he said.

“My goal with the petition–even though it’s not mine–I’m trying to use it to start conversations to show that this is something that the community wants and to bring that into a conversation with Dean Livingston, President Poskanzer, Vice President Fred Rogers and people that can really make change happen in regards to how we’re structuring Title IX.”

He emphasized the importance of a full-time Title IX coordinator. “Title IX coordinators actually have a lot more responsibilities than people might think,” he said. “There are about 80-90 community concern forms each year, so that’s a pretty involved process.”

Wetherall echoed Gorey’s statements, saying “I do hope that the petition provides undeniable proof that Carleton students are recognizing a problem, a systemic inadequacy in our college’s handling of Title IX. If this student advocacy and the lawsuit do not bring the College to recognize the issue, I believe this sends a clear message that students must escalate their tactics to match the unresponsiveness of our College administration. Dialogue works, but only if both parties are willing to enter the conversation.”

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