Chadron State appeals $300,000 jury verdict that it didn’t protect a woman after her rape

Jan. 13, 2023, 9 a.m. ·

A "Chadron State College" sign is in the foreground of a campus view.
Chadron State College is appealing the 2021 jury decision that it did not properly protect an anonymous woman after her rape on the college's campus. The jury awarded her $300,000 in its finding. (Photo by Elizabeth Rembert, Nebraska Public Media News)

Attorneys for Chadron State College are appealing a 2021 jury decision that awarded a young woman $300,000 after she was raped on campus.

This week, the college’s lawyer argued before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that the case never should have gone before a jury because the school had satisfied its legal requirement to protect the anonymous woman, known as Jane Doe.

Title IX, a federal civil rights law, requires institutions to protect students from sexual harassment in order to receive federal funds.

Chadron State attorney George Martin argued Doe’s case didn’t satisfy a legal standard called “deliberate indifference,” which means the school did not reasonably respond to harassment they knew about.

“To a layperson in the street or in the jury box, they say ‘If there’s a sexual assault you expel, you’re done.’ But the Office of Civil Rights writings on that are much, much different,” Martin said. “And that’s what these folks [college administrators] are taught.”

Martin also told judges the jury had been improperly instructed and raised issues with an expert’s testimony during the 2021 trial.

Attorney Maren Chaloupka, who is representing Doe, defended the jury’s ruling in favor of her client. She said the verdict follows precedent that an institution’s “deliberate indifference” is defined by when its actions make students liable or vulnerable to harassment.

Chaloupka said the actions Chadron State took – like not removing the rapist from campus – made Doe vulnerable, especially considering that the rapist had a history of confronting and taunting her.

She said Doe did not have full access to educational opportunities as she was afraid of encountering the perpetrator and she suffered panic attacks.

“The evidence showed that Chadron knew its campus was too small for Jane Doe to avoid her rapist,” Chaloupka said. “The administrators knew that his unrestricted presence would make Jane Doe vulnerable on the small campus.”

Chadron State banned contact between Doe and the perpetrator and allowed Doe to finish her college classes remotely. Administrators also prescribed counseling and reading assignments on toxic masculinity to the perpetrator.

David Stras, a judge for the 8th Circuit, said the school’s response to the rape on its campus was a “pretty bungled process” and that the discipline seemed like “a slap on the wrist at best.”

On the other hand, he seemed uncertain that Doe had an actionable case, since the assailant didn’t go on to harass her again after she reported the rape and the college took action.

“For a harassment claim, you need to have the failure to take appropriate actions to prevent future harassment,” Stras said. “I don't know that the failure to properly punish someone and then for that harasser never to do anything, again, is actually actionable.”

It will likely be months before the appeals court decides to affirm or reverse the jury’s verdict.