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A federal court jury unanimously found Chadron State College failed in its responsibility to support a student raped on its campus in 2016. The victim who sued the state-operated school must be paid $300,000. Chadron State said in a statement it disagreed with the result and plans to appeal the decision.
The unanimous verdict came just six hours after jurors heard closing arguments in the case at the Federal District Court in Omaha.
"My client was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude," Maren Chaloupka, who represented the woman identified as Jane Doe to protect her anonymity, said. "It meant to her that she had finally been heard. And that she had finally been respected."
The eight jurors listened for six days to evidence that administrators at Chadron State College did not fully investigate the sexual assault of the former student. Further, the case was made that the college failed to adequately sanction the male student who had twice assaulted Doe.
He admitted Doe said no when he attacked her in a restroom at the dorm where she worked overnight at the security desk. Security cameras recorded the pair's interactions leading up to and after the incident, but the assault itself occurred in areas off camera. A university investigator claimed the silent footage made the victim appear flirtatious. Doe, viewing the same footage on the witness stand, described how she had been fighting off her attacker.
After she reported the rape, the college barred contact between the woman and the man and banned him from her workplace. They also prescribed counseling, reading and a class on consent.
Doe still feared encountering him on the college’s small campus. And her attorney emphasized that she was the one responsible for upholding the college’s bans.
"The college was if anything accommodating sexual perpetrators, and left rape victims to really make their own choices about whether they wanted to spend time on a campus where the sexual perpetrators were being allowed to essentially roam the campus," Chaloupka said.
The case before the jury boiled down to a single phrase: "deliberate indifference."
That’s a legal standard in the Title IX civil rights regulations used to measure whether a federally-funded school failed to act on behalf of students or staff facing sexual harassment.
In Doe’s closing arguments, her attorney argued Chadron State’s response was ineffective and that she'd provided ample proof the school gave sexual predators "free rein on campus.”
Chaloupka singled out the school’s failure to implement a risk assessment of the man to determine if the perpetrator was a risk to the victim and the campus at large.
Attorneys representing Chadron State claimed the evidence showed the school took immediate action to stop the harassment by barring contact between the perpetrator and Doe and banning the man from the hall where Doe worked. The school required counseling and had the perpetrator write a report after reading a book about men and sexual assault.
Chaloupka says she hopes the college gleans some lessons learned from the verdict.
"I think that people who did not listen to her should be realizing that they should have," she said. "If they have to pay $300,000, every time that they that they tell a rape victim that she's going to have to fend for herself, instead of removing the perpetrator from campus, that's going to add up over time."
In an email from a spokesperson, the college said it appreciated the jury's hard work, but disagrees with the outcome and will appeal the decision. "We will not have any additional comments until the appeals process has run its course,” the statement said.
Editor's Note: Maren Chaloupka and her law firm, Chaloupka Law LLC, are among Nebraska Public Media’s financial supporters.