Title IX Lawsuits Allege UNL Mishandled Sexual Assault Reports
By Elizabeth Rembert , Food, Energy and Agriculture Reporter Nebraska Public Media, Harvest Public Media and Will Bauer, Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Nov. 10, 2021, 6:30 a.m. ·
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Ten women allege that while they were attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the past seven years they were raped, groped, stalked, targeted with racist remarks, or otherwise assaulted and harassed by other students. In two lawsuits, the women are suing the university for allegedly mishandling their reports of sexual misconduct.
In a statement, a UNL spokesperson said while it cannot comment on the specifics of any pending litigation, the safety of students is a priority for the school and that it is confident in its investigation process.
Nearly 50 years after Congress passed Title IX to protect students from sexual discrimination among other things, there are currently outcries about sexual violence at UNL. The group of women hope their suits serve as a wake-up call for the university – an expensive one, potentially.
The women sought help from UNL’s Title IX office, which is legally obligated to protect students from sexual assault. It’s a condition for receiving federal funds that keep a university running.
Sheridan Thomas, the lead plaintiff in one of the cases, said investigators at the office didn’t live up to her expectations or the school’s own guidelines. She said she’s made peace that she’ll never get justice for her assault, but her treatment by the school’s Title IX office still unsettles her.
“UNL really traumatized me,” she said. “These people that I thought were going to protect me and come by my side and help me didn't.”
Lansing, Michigan-based lawyers Elizabeth Abdnour and Karen Truszkowski filed the lawsuits on behalf of the 10 women, and they said Thomas’ feelings are shared by many survivors.
"You have no expectations of a rapist or harasser, but you've got expectations of an institution that's supposed to protect you that you're paying a lot of money to," Abdnour said.
For Truszkowski, the school’s reputation stood out to her. She'd heard for a long time about Title IX problems at Nebraska.
"That was like this underlying problem that everybody knew about, but nobody knew how to address it," she said.
Universities have paid millions of dollars in settlements to sexual misconduct survivors in recent years, and Title IX missteps can result in hefty fines from the U.S. Department of Education. Beyond money, the women suing the university are hoping for change. They said they don’t want what happened to them to happen to other students.
Before Thomas' alleged assault and experience with UNL's Title IX office, she'd been a 17-year-old college freshman majoring in broadcast and meteorology, dreaming of being an anchor on ABC's "Good Morning America." Nearly a year later, she was dismissed from the school after the office allegedly failed to make academic accommodations as she dealt with her assault. Of the 10 women involved in the suits, Thomas is in the minority by choosing to speak out publicly.
“The reason I’m using my name is showing them that ‘You did this to me, and now I’m going to fight back,’” she said. “I want change to occur. I hope and pray that other women on campus, and even men, are being protected – that they know their school will be a safe space for them.”
What are the lawsuits?
In the first lawsuit, spanning 96 pages, Thomas and eight other plaintiffs – most of whom are not named – allege they were victims of sexual violence, and the university failed to properly respond. Thomas v. Regents was filed in July 2020 and names the Nebraska Board of Regents, high ranking university officials and Title IX office employees.
The second lawsuit – Jane Doe v. Regents, also from Abdnour and Truszkowski – centers around an unnamed graduate student who was sexually harassed by her Ph.D. adviser. The lawsuit, which was filed in February, alleges similarly that the Title IX office failed to properly respond.
Among the claims across the two lawsuits, UNL's Title IX Office:
- Did not make academic accommodations for survivors struggling with classes after the assaults
- Asked victim blaming-type questions like: "What were you wearing?”
- Did not put in place measures to protect survivors from their assaulters
"It's unfortunate, but these are pretty common, especially in recent years," said Chloe Neely, another Michigan attorney who specializes in Title IX cases and is not involved with these lawsuits.
Other notable cases include Michigan State and Baylor, which were the focus of well-known cases and ended in expensive settlements and resignations.
"The school knew about sexual harassment, knew about sexual assault and didn't do anything," Neely said. "That's a pretty standard Title IX claim."
In legal fillings, UNL initially denied the first lawsuit’s claims and said the school acted properly in its response to the sexual assault claims. After the university asked to dismiss in April, seven of the 12 counts were dropped in September.
U.S. DOJ issues statement of interest
Before that, the U.S. Department of Justice in June accused the university of misapplying Title IX practices. In a 24-page “statement of interest,” the federal government expressed concern and said the university cited incorrect standards and adopted a restrictive definition of sexual harassment in its arguments opposing the Thomas v. Regents claims.
As a Title IX lawyer, Neely said, it's a great sign for the plaintiffs. "It's unusual for the United States to weigh in on cases out of the blue." Neely also said the DOJ commented on a lawsuit of hers filed against Kansas State University.
The federal government is responsible for enforcing Title IX, and while the court is not bound by the DOJ's statement, Neely said it’s pretty compelling.
The university did not make anyone available for an interview but did provide a statement:
“We remain confident of our legal position and are pleased that the vast majority of claims were dropped by the plaintiffs," spokesperson Leslie Reed said via email. "The health and safety of all of our students is of the utmost importance to us. We have a strong Title IX process and are confident in it. Every case is difficult and investigated based on the information made available. We cannot comment on the specifics of any Title IX investigation or on pending litigation.”
In Thomas v. Regents' latest filing, the plaintiff lawyers clarified their legal arguments on Tuesday after the judge requested additional explanation in September. The university asked the court to dismiss the second lawsuit's claims in October, and the plaintiffs responded in opposition on Monday.
Will UNL be penalized?
To Sandra Hodgin, a Title IX compliance expert and California-based consultant, the suits have a strong shot to succeed and create change at the school.
Hodgin reviewed the cases and found several instances where she believes UNL didn’t follow Title IX protocol. The allegations that the office didn't make academic accommodations and didn't provide proper documents stood out to her.
She said while investigating sexual misconduct is complicated and sensitive, the rules clearly guide universities on how to handle cases with best practice.
“If you're ignoring those best practices, that is where campuses find themselves in trouble,” Hodgin said.
With 10 women alleging a systemic problem and the DOJ issuing a statement of interest, Neely said change could be the best outcome for the university from the lawsuits.
In Neely and Hodgin's eyes, the school could review and assess its Title IX procedure or re-establish independent, full-time sexual assault advocates on campus. The survivors' lawyers said even something as simple as making its policies easier to understand would be progress.
But those changes might be years off. The court system takes its time, and, according to lawyers and legal experts, the length of a suit doesn’t tip the scale toward one side or the other; it just means it’s moving through proper legal procedures. These lawyers said it could take years to reach a conclusion in either of these cases.
For now, Hodgin said she wouldn't be surprised if more women come forward to strengthen the cases with their own stories of harassment and mistreatment.
"You start to find individuals that say, 'I went through the same thing. I need support; I needed support,'" she said.
Nebraska Public Media is reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Title IX through our series: "Title IX: More than a Game." Read more about the landmark equity law here:
- 'We Just Wanted to Play': How Title IX Helped Nebraska Volleyball Thrive
- How a Minden Lawsuit Redefined Title IX for Public Schools
- Work is Changing, But Pay Gap Between Men and Women Remains Hard to Narrow in Nebraska, Nationwide
- Female Enrollment Up in Colleges, but Faculty Pay Gap Remains
- Outside the binary: How Title IX protections affect transgender Nebraskans
- Before Title IX, Women's Sports Pioneer Claussen Found a Path
- Chadron State Sees Women's Wrestling as the Next Big Sport