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Union College mishandled student’s rape complaint, lawsuit alleges

Union College mishandled student’s rape complaint, lawsuit alleges

Union College mishandled student’s rape complaint, lawsuit alleges
A banner supporting an alleged rape victim hangs from the balcony of the Reamer Center at Union College.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber/Gazette Photographer

A lawsuit against Union College alleges school officials failed to respond to a student’s report that she was raped and bungled an investigation and adjudication of the claim once officials did pursue it.

The suit, filed Friday on behalf of an anonymous Jane Doe, outlines in detail the woman’s alleged rape and the months-long process that followed and eventually determined the accused rapist was not responsible for violating Union policy.

The female student is not named in the lawsuit but is described as a student from a private New York City high school who joined the Union campus as a freshman in August 2017. It’s not clear in the lawsuit whether Doe is still a student at Union.

After word of the suit spread, a new banner was hung in the Reamer Campus Center by the Women’s Union and the Union chapter of the American Association of University Women: “We support Jane Doe.”

The lawyer who brought the lawsuit, New York City-based attorney Andrew Miltenberg, on Wednesday said he was troubled by how Union officials appeared to handle allegations of sexual assault or rape and suggested issues at the college may go beyond just his client.

“I would like to think that at some level you’ve got people who will try to act responsibly, especially on campus,” Miltenberg said of Union officials. “And that doesn’t seem to be happening at all.”

The lawsuit claims the Union freshman on her third day on campus joined other students at an off-campus Theta Delta Chi fraternity party, where she met an upperclassman and men’s soccer player who raped her at his off-campus apartment. In the suit, Doe acknowledged having consumed alcohol and marijuana prior to the alleged assault.

“Plaintiff was so shocked and scared at what was happening to her, it was as though she was paralyzed – unable to move her limbs, which felt heavy and limp – and helpless to stop Assaulter Roe from raping her,” the suit alleged.

The following day, while at an orientation session on the school’s sexual misconduct policy and federal Title IX protections, according to the suit, the student informed Union’s Title IX coordinator Melissa Kelley of the alleged rape and named her assaulter.

Federal Title IX rules protect students from discrimination based on sex and outlines how colleges and universities who receive federal funding should handle allegations of sexual assault – which is considered to prevent a student from accessing an equal education based on their sex.

The suit claimed Kelley “did not take any steps to investigate the credible report of sexual assault” at the orientation session and “did nothing to help safeguard plaintiff while she remained on campus with her rapist.”

The plaintiff followed Kelley’s suggestion she visit the Union Wellness Center, where the young woman received a “plan B” contraceptive pill and medication to prevent and treat sexually-transmitted diseases. She later was examined at Ellis Hospital, according to the suit.

In January 2018, following the alleged rape on Sept. 3, Jane Doe filed a formal complaint against her alleged rapist. The suit argues the college continued to mishandle Doe’s case, citing a litany of process missteps the suit claims biased the investigation and final outcome against Doe.

The suit alleges, for example, the college gave the accused assaulter a chance to review Doe’s written statement before he submitted his own statement. Once investigators were assigned to the case, they interviewed the alleged rapist prior to interviewing Doe, according to the suit.

“Curiously, although it was her complaint… (the investigators), intentionally, chose not to interview plaintiff first,” Doe’s attorney wrote in the suit.

The suit also claims when Doe was questioned by the panel reviewing the case, she was not given a copy of the materials provided to the panel members. When college officials ultimately reviewed her appeal of the decision that her alleged rapist was not responsible, they incorrectly wrote she was “provided a copy of the documents to reference” at the hearing, according to the suit.

When officials determined in a 3-2 vote Doe’s alleged rapist was not responsible – that the sex was consensual – the decision was in part based on a finding that “a small amount of marijuana” could not have incapacitated Doe, according to the suit. The panel also concluded “we believe (Doe) feels she was victimized” and that “it is possible for someone to give consent and still feel ‘used’ after a sexual encounter,” according to the suit.

The suit also cited an ongoing federal investigation into Union’s handling of past sexual assault allegations – an investigation into “whether the college promptly and equitably responded to all complaints, reports and/or incidents of sexual assault of which it had notice.”

Union College spokesman Phil Wajda on Tuesday did not respond to the allegations in the lawsuit, providing a statement that the college “will not comment on specific allegations involving a student or relating to a student in order to protect the privacy of our students.”

The statement continued that Union “take(s) all allegations of sexual assault seriously and encourage(s) individuals to come forward if they believe they have been a victim.”

Wajda also provided a note Union President David Harris sent to the college community over the weekend to address the lawsuit. Harris cited the college’s inability to address specific allegations and attached a note he sent in October committing to investigating and responding to all claims of sexual assault and harassment.

“I hope you will appreciate that it would be inappropriate for me, or others who work for the college, to comment on the substance of an ongoing legal matter, or any active or completed student conduct investigation,” Harris wrote to the campus community.

In the October letter, Harris said the college must do all it can to prevent harassment and assault and investigate all claims of abuse. He also highlighted the “tremendous courage” it takes for victims of sexual assault or rape to come forward.

“Evidence shows that people rarely make claims that they know are false,” Harris wrote in the October note.

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