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Lawsuit: Purdue accused of ‘chilling’ retaliation on women who reported sexual assaults

Lawsuit: Purdue accused of ‘chilling’ retaliation on women who reported sexual assaults Dave Bangert, Lafayette Journal & CourierPublished 4:39 p.m. ET Nov. 14, 2018 | Updated 10:09 p.m. ET Nov. 15, 2018 In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, two former students claim they were kicked out of school after Purdue couldn’t find enough evidence in their

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In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, two former students claim they were kicked out of school after Purdue couldn’t find enough evidence in their sexual assault reports


(Editor’s note: Purdue released a statement Thursday, after this initial count published. This version has been updated to reflect Purdue’s reaction.)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Two former Purdue University students say the university kicked them out of school after investigators retaliated when they couldn’t find enough evidence to back claims that the women had been sexually assaulted, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The suit, filed under the pseudonyms of Mary Doe and Nancy Roe, claims that Purdue is working under a policy – “either written or unwritten” – in which “women who cannot prove their claims to the satisfaction of Purdue decision-makers face discipline up to expulsion.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Indiana’s Northern District, names Purdue, along with Katie Sermersheim, Purdue’s dean of students, and Alyssa Rollock, vice president for ethics and compliance at the university.

“I suspect there’s been some sort of overreaction over there to the way they were criticized for handling complaints,” said Jeff Macey, an Indianapolis attorney representing the two women and their claims that Purdue violated federal Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault.

“But the school cannot be expelling or otherwise disciplining women if the investigation doesn’t come out in their favor,” Macey said. “And I’m afraid that’s what’s happening there. And that’s just a real chilling, chilling effect on victims who are complaining under the Title IX processes the university has set up.”

Tim Doty, a Purdue spokesman, said on Wednesday that university officials had not been served with the lawsuit. On Thursday, Doty released a statement from the university.

“To the extent the case challenges the university’s handling of complaints under our anti-harassment policy and procedures, we stand by our commitment to provide a safe and secure environment for all members of our community,” Doty said. “These are often difficult matters to investigate and decide, but we are confident in our processes and believe they afford all students with broad and appropriate protections, whether they are raising allegations of sexual misconduct or responding to them. Fair application of our policy necessarily entails ensuring all parties participate in the process in good faith by providing truthful information to assist the university in making its determinations.”

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The lawsuit claims the women didn’t know each other and that their reports of sexual assaults were not related. The suit also claims the reports about sexual assault were made about different men. Macey declined to answer questions about how they wound up in the same lawsuit.

The women initially were expelled from Purdue, with their discipline reduced to two-year suspensions.

Macey said the women, now 20 and 21, were treated “as if they were the accused harassers” by investigators who “made discriminatory assumptions” about their behavior, while dealing out smaller punishments to the men in each case.

Here are the particulars, as claimed in the lawsuit.

► Doe, a freshman at the time, reported on Oct. 10, 2017, to the Purdue University Police Department that she’d been assaulted in her residence hall room by a male student who had already landed on the university’s persona non grata list, banned from campus “because of his conduct directed against a different female student.”

The suit claims the Purdue police reported the incident to the university, which launched its own investigation. The suit does not say why Purdue police turned the investigation over to the university.

The suit claims Doe spoke with a university investigator at the start, but then quit participating. The investigation went on, according to the suit. The suit claims that the investigation turned, treating Doe – without her knowledge – as the target.

“Contrary to its own policy,” the suit claims, “defendants made credibility findings against Doe based on her decision to not participate in the investigation.”

The university eventually alleged that Doe fabricated her account of the assault and expelled her, before reducing the punishment to a two-year suspension on Feb. 22, 2018.

► Roe, a junior at the time, said she was sexually assaulted April 17, 2017, in her dorm room, after a male student walked her home from a party at a fraternity. The suit claims she was intoxicated and incapable of giving consent for sexual intercourse. The suit claims the man sexually assaulted her, making audio recordings of what was happening.

The suit says that Roe became concerned about what might have happened the night before when she discovered bruising on her neck after going to class the next day. That’s when she sought medical treatment and reported the incident to the university. After Purdue investigated, the suit said, Roe was accused of reporting the assault maliciously and expelled her. Her expulsion also was reduced to a two-year suspension on Oct. 17, after she appealed.

The suit claims that when Purdue found out that the fraternity member in Roe’s case had recorded her without her consent, it assigned him a 10-page paper as a punishment. The topic of the paper was not mentioned.

Macey said the initial intent of the lawsuit is to get the two women reinstated at Purdue.

“This has really derailed their education careers,” Macey said.

Beyond that, he said, Purdue should be on notice about how it handles sexual assault investigations.

“Just because Purdue doesn’t believe you doesn’t mean you’ve maliciously set out to harm somebody, which is my understanding of what the standard is for expulsion,” Macey said.

“You don’t want a situation where you have someone risking their academic career to even raise a complaint. And it appears Purdue’s moved in that direction. And to that extent, that’s the policy we’re challenging.”

Reach Dave Bangert at 765-420-5258 or at Follow on Twitter: @davebangert.