Sexual Assault: Why Schools Need Their Own Call To Action

Sexual Assault: Why Schools Need Their Own Call To Action

By Sarah Belton, Cartwright-Baron Attorney

Nothing was done.  That is the message that permeates every aspect of the story of Sasha Menu Courey, a female student from the University of Missouri.  Prior to an alleged sexual assault, Menu Courey was a 4.0 student and a swimmer.  After, she was a young woman who stopped attending swim practice, checked herself into psychiatric care, and attempted suicide on multiple occasions, ultimately taking her own life in June of 2011.  As her mother said of Menu Courey, the sexual assault “cost her her health. . . her swimming. . . her life.  The reason she needed all this treatment is because she was raped.  And nothing was done about it.”

Last week, President Obama created a task force aimed at protecting students from sexual assault.  The action was partially in response to a report released by the White House Council on Women and Girls.  Entitled Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action, the document notes that sexual assault is a serious problem on college campuses and that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college.  The report is explicit that sexual assault is “[n]ot a misunderstanding, not a private matter, not anyone’s right or any woman’s fault” and that “bystanders must be taught and emboldened to step in to stop it.”  This task force is an acknowledgement that we must take action; we must do something.

An example of this is taking place right now at the University of Missouri.  On January 26, 2014, amid the national press for a renewed call to action to prevent sexual assault, ESPN released a story that Missouri did not pursue, investigate, or inform law enforcement officials of an alleged sexual assault of a swimmer by as many as three members of the school’s football team.  The incident occurred in February 2010 and the victim, Menu Courey, committed suicide in 2011.  Although Menu Courey initially told only health care providers of the sexual assault, there is a question of whether she also disclosed the incident to a Missouri athletic department official, Meghan Anderson.  Anderson visited Menu Courey while she was hospitalized following a suicide attempt to obtain Menu Courey’s signature on a university form withdrawing her from Missouri.

Similar to other colleges and universities around the country that have received recent attention for their handling of sexual assaults, the University of Missouri’s conduct raises questions about whether the school complied with its federal obligations under Title IX.  As Public Justice and others have previously noted, schools that know, or reasonably should know, of an alleged sexual assault must conduct an investigation.  And the U.S. Department of Education has been explicit that “[s]chools may have an obligation to respond to student-on-student sexual harassment that initially occurred off school grounds, outside a school’s education program or activity.”

In response to the ESPN story, the University of Missouri released a statement denying that it was aware of the sexual assault prior to late 2012 and stating that because the assault allegedly occurred off campus, investigation lies within the jurisdiction of the Columbia Police Department. 

Now, on one hand, University of Missouri President, Tim Wolfe, has called for an independent investigation of the school’s handling of this situation.  And the school has turned over information to the police department and asked them to investigate.  These are positive, if tardy, developments. But on the other side of things, if you visit the school’s website, you will find an FAQ document where, while purporting to express “heartfelt condolences” to Menu Courey’s family, the University essentially lays out its case for how the school is blameless.  Specifically, Missouri states that it didn’t previously move forward with an investigation because the family didn’t make an official request; because a February 12, 2012 article mentioning the assault didn’t provide the University with enough information to investigate; and because when ESPN investigated and named the alleged perpetrator Missouri checked its records and saw that the man lives off-campus. In short, though Missouri touts its “desire not to interfere with the pending Columbia Police Department investigation,” the university wants to emphasize that it did not have a responsibility to take any action.  Therefore, the logic follows, by doing nothing, the school did nothing wrong.

When calling for creation of a special task force, President Obama noted the physical and mental health problems affecting rape and sexual assault survivors.  And while many survivors are joining together across the country to raise awareness and file complaints, the Menu Courey tragedy is a reminder that the handling of sexual assaults on college campuses continues to be a real problem with real consequences.

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