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Roe v. St. Louis University – Standard of Deliberate Indifference in Campus Sexual Assault

Sexual assault on college campuses is a major problem, in Florida and nationwide. The U.S. Justice Department reports that in an average year, one out of every 20 female college students will suffer a sexual assault, with roughly 80 to 90 percent of those involving an acquaintance.

As West Palm Beach personal injury attorneys, we recognize that beyond the criminal aspects of a case, there is often a question of civil liability. Sometimes, this surfaces in the form of failure to provide adequate security or have appropriate policies in place. We would also look at the possibility of a violation under Title X of the Education Amendments of 1972, specifically whether there has been an issue of deliberate indifference regarding the rape (or sexual harassment).

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a college or university that receives federal funds could be held legally liable to pay compensation to a victim of student-on-student sexual harassment or rape if the victim can prove that university officials acted with deliberate indifference to known acts in its programs or activities.

Florida has its own set of protections, the Florida Education Equity Act, per Florida Statute 1000.05.

While colleges have improved with regard to their awareness of and response to campus sexual assault over the last several years, officials recognize that part of what they are selling to their new admissions is the promise of a safe learning environment. A high number of reported sexual assaults runs contrary to this goal, and that can be a powerful incentive for discouraging a student from reporting a rape, or in failing to respond appropriately when a student does come forward.

This was alleged in the recent case of Roe v. St. Louis University, et al., reviewed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Here, a student who was attending a university on an athletic scholarship alleged that she was sexually assaulted by fraternity brother at an off-campus Halloween party.

Both were drinking, and several other attendees noted that they had seen the pair together in the stairwell.

He maintains the encounter was consensual. She insisted it wasn’t.

She would later reveal what had happened to an assistant coach, who then sought counsel from a coach and the matter was referred to the university’s assistant athletic director. This individual says she became actively involved in trying to help the alleged victim, but was reportedly told the victim could not remember what happened.

At the time of the incident, she had been on academic probation, for earlier failing grades. Soon after, her class attendance worsened and she was removed from the field hockey team.

Soon after, she returned home, and did not go back to school. It was not until then that she reported to her parents the sexual assault. It was at that time that her parents filed a police report. However, no criminal charges were ever filed.

Several months later, she and her parents filed a civil lawsuit against the school, alleging deliberate indifference to the rape report (among other claims). She indicated that the university had a pattern of deliberate indifference toward sexual assault claims, and that sexual assault policy at the school was inadequate, resulting in severely underreported number of sexual assaults. She also named the national and local fraternity chapter in her case.

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the national and local fraternity chapters, and then later granted the same to the university.

Upon appeal, the appellate court noted that in order to prove deliberate indifference, the plaintiff has to show that the institution had substantial control over both the harasser (or accused) and the context in which the incident(s) occurred. In order for the university to prove it’s not liable for deliberate indifference, it must show that it responded to known peer harassment or assault in a way that is “not clearly unreasonable.”

This standard affords a great deal of flexibility to school administrators, and the plaintiff in this case failed to prove the school hadn’t met that standard.

However, there are many situations in which this can be proven. Those who have suffered peer assault or harassment while attending college in Florida should consult with an experienced personal injury attorney to explore the options.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Roe v. St. Louis University, et al., March 25, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
Ennabe v. Manosa – Liability for Drunk Driving Crashes Resulting From Underage Consumption, March 6, 2014, West Palm Beach Personal Injury Lawyers

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