Education

Student says she was raped twice in a year. Lawsuit claims UK made things worse.

Photo of University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall on South Limestone in Lexington, Ky., Friday February 13, 2015. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff
Photo of University of Kentucky's Memorial Hall on South Limestone in Lexington, Ky., Friday February 13, 2015. Photo by Charles Bertram | Staff Herald-Leader

A University of Kentucky student has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school, the second in two years to question its handling of sexual assault cases.

According to the lawsuit filed in U.S District Court in Lexington, the woman identified as Jane Doe said she was raped twice by two different students at UK in 2016. In one case, the alleged assailant was expelled, but in the other, the accused was found “not responsible.”

The lawsuit alleges that UK’s lengthy and complex process of dealing with alleged sexual assaults and various missteps by UK officials in both cases resulted in trauma and a loss of educational opportunities for Jane Doe.

Jane Doe was first assaulted in August 2016, and in the aftermath, the lawsuit claims, campus officials did not protect her from her assailant, or make accommodations that allowed her to live and study on campus without fear.

She reported that she and the assailant share many friends and social settings. After she decided to seek an official campus investigation, she reported that her alleged perpetrator, called John Doe in the lawsuit, followed her home from class, or came near her at a tailgate party, but UK’s Office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity, which is commonly called the Title IX office, told her that “ neither of these events counted as a violation by the Title IX office and that she should just avoid the places that he was likely to be.”

In January 2017, the Title IX office told her there wasn’t enough evidence to bring her case in front of UK’s Sexual Misconduct Hearing Board, the lawsuit says. After the plaintiff protested, UK re-evaluated the information and decided to conduct a hearing. Her representative would be Nicholas Kehrwald, interim dean of students, who is named individually in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit noted that numerous news reports have said Kehrwald was the director of Student Conduct and Community Standards at the University of Kansas before he came to UK, just as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights began investigating the University of Kansas for its handling of sexual assault cases. In addition, Kehrwald made headlines when he decided a student found guilty of sexual assault should not have to do community service because it was too punitive.

The plaintiff alleges that Kehrwald did not turn in vital evidence. In addition, during the hearing, John Doe was represented by Lexington attorney Jim Lowry, who has previously represented athletes in high-profile cases. The lawsuit says Lowry was allowed to speak and argue, despite explicit hearing rules that allow attorneys to attend such hearings but prohibit them from taking part.

John Doe was found “not responsible” for the sexual assault. Jane Doe asked Kehrwald to help her draft an appeal, but he told her the appeal wouldn’t be worth her time, the lawsuit claims. Jane Doe then hired her current attorney, Lindsay Cordes of Louisville, to handle the appeal. Then Kehrwald wrote an 11-page response, “asserting why the plaintiff’s appeal should not be granted,” the lawsuit says.

UK spokeswoman Kathy Johnson said officials do not comment on specific litigation, but she added: “In all allegations of sexual assault, our process of review and deliberation is thoughtful and thorough, abiding by the requirements of federal and state law; federal guidance; and university policy. We respect the rights of all parties involved. And we are confident in the sensitivity and expertise of university officials who do this work.”

The lawsuit also details another alleged assault in October 2016 by a lab partner of Jane Doe, identified in the lawsuit as James Doe. Jane Doe reported that assault to UK police. The lawsuit says it took the Title IX office a month to remove James Doe from her lab class and an additional 180 days for the Title IX investigation to be completed.

The Sexual Misconduct Hearing Board met in April 2017 and found James Doe responsible for violating the Student Code of Conduct and immediately dismissed him from UK. But, the lawsuit contends, both processes caused her to lose out on educational opportunities, the right guaranteed by the federal Title IX law.

They included the “loss of an educational space to safely study, a loss of social rights and protections, a loss of feeling safe while on campus, a loss of time correlated with plaintiff’s academic preparation and success due to the many times plaintiff had to meet with Title IX, and Title IX’s failure to provide a prompt and equitable resolution to plaintiff’s Title IX complaint against John Doe. In addition, plaintiff has suffered great emotional pain and suffering.”

The lawsuit comes at a fraught time for dealing with campus sexual assault. After surveys found that more than one in four women said they had been assaulted in college, the Obama Administration imposed new and complex rules for schools that receive federal funds, including one that allowed campus hearing boards to rule on the preponderance of evidence, rather than the judicial system’s standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That, in turn, has led to numerous lawsuits against universities by those found “responsible” under the new system.

Now, under President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is reviewing those rules.

UK is currently battling another Title IX case by a Jane Doe, who said her alleged campus rape by a football player was mishandled by UK. In one ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Hood agreed, denying UK’s request for dismissal. He described the university’s disciplinary process as “bungled” in that case.

The latest case against UK has also been assigned to Hood.

Linda Blackford: 859-231-1359, @lbblackford

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