Judge allows Iowa State University sexual assault lawsuit to proceed

Ex-student claims university failed to stop retaliation against her

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DES MOINES — A U.S. District Court judge is allowing a lawsuit alleging more Title IX violations against Iowa State University to proceed on limited grounds — but not on the “too vague and general” accusation that the institution ignored systemic problems within the Greek community.

The complaint, filed over the summer by a former ISU student, falls “far short of offering concrete allegations of a distinct pattern of similar prior sexual assaults by male members of the Greek community ... sufficient to place the university on notice that male fraternity members as a group posed an ‘acute risk’ to female students,” according to Judge’s Ross A. Walters’ ruling this month.

In her lawsuit, Taylor Niesen, who enrolled at Iowa State in the fall of 2014 and dropped out after the 2015 fall semester, reported being sexually assaulted at a Greek house by a fraternity member in January 2015.

In suing the university, its general counsel, the Board of Regents and the state, Neisen accused the defendants of a “deliberate indifference to the history and frequency of sexual assaults in the Greek community.”

Pointing to several student reports of sexual assault within the Greek community and repeated and ongoing complaints related to Greek houses, Niesen said the university and broader system “did not take adequate preventive measures to protect students from sexual assault in the Greek community.”

The Gazette does not typically name victims of sexual assault, except when they identify themselves in a public medium.

investigations

Niesen’s lawsuit is among several that have been filed against Iowa State alleging sexual assault and Title IX violations. The U.S. Office of Civil Rights has three open Title IX investigations involving ISU, including two related to sexual assault allegations.

Federal authorities also are investigating the University of Iowa on allegations of Title IX and sexual assault violations.

As to issues within the Greek community, Iowa State keeps an updated online list of student organization disciplinary actions, including those leveled against fraternities and sororities. Nearly 35 incidents warranting some degree of sanction have been listed since December 2013 — 29 of them involving a Greek organization.

Two fraternities have been suspended.

Pi Kappa Alpha, or PIKE, was suspended in September until next year for “misuse of alcoholic beverages and controlled substances, contempt and violation of conditions of recognition.”

Sigma Alpha Epsilon was suspended in June 2015 through January 2019 for alcohol violations and “endangerment and violation of conditions of recognition.” The university does not release more specific details about violations and sanctions.

dropping out

Niesen, in her lawsuit against ISU, did not identify the individual she says assaulted her or the fraternity he was associated with.

Although she had hoped to stay in school, according to the lawsuit, Niesen dropped out after suffering a barrage of insults, harassment, isolation and discrimination for her decision to report the crime to school officials and to law enforcement.

In response to her reports, the fraternity suspended the accused student, halted parties and temporarily shut down, according to the lawsuit.

‘retaliation’

The response among both fraternity and sorority members on campus was swift and harsh, according to the lawsuit.

“Taylor was subjected to jeering, chanting and was referred to as ‘that girl that got raped,’ ” according to the lawsuit. “Other students would make comments like, ‘Nobody get near Taylor, she’ll call the cops and claim rape!’ At this same social event, everybody left the party or cleared the room after Taylor walked in.”

Niesen in her lawsuit accused Iowa State of doing nothing to stop the retaliation.

“Not responding to and not adequately addressing a student’s requests for help from retaliation and a hostile educational environment is unreasonable and is a form of deliberate indifference,” Niesen claimed in her lawsuit.

It is on those grounds the federal judge allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

“The complaint adequately pleads the university’s knowledge of the retaliation, inaction which could amount to deliberate indifference, and that the retaliation was severe, pervasive and offensive enough to have denied Ms. Niesen equal access to institutional resources and opportunities,” the judge ruled.

DEFENDANTS DROPPED

Niesen, according to the judge, agreed to drop every defendant from her lawsuit except the university and to drop a negligence claim against it related to a history of sexual violence on campus and within the Greek community, as well as accusations Iowa State failed to protect students.

But she did not drop assertions that, among other things, “ISU fosters a social environment that retaliates against victims of sexual assault, providing an unequal benefit to accused perpetrators of sexual assault.”

“ISU did not take remedial measures within the Greek community to ensure that victims of sexual assault feel safe coming forward with complaints of sexual violence and other violations of the student misconduct policy,” according to the lawsuit.

ISU RESPONSE

ISU attorney Mike Norton, in a statement released by the university spokesman, said that only the one issue remains to be decided after Niesen dropped the others after ISU filed a motion to dismiss the case. “The University believes that the remaining narrowed issue will also be decided in its favor when the Court considers the facts of the case,” the statement said.

ISU spokesman John McCarroll said the institution “takes its obligations under Title IX very seriously. We are constantly trying to improve the campus climate to eliminate sexual violence, encourage the reporting of sexual misconduct, and support survivors.”

Niesen, in her lawsuit, also accused the university of failing to provide its Title IX coordinator “with sufficient authority under Title IX to address retaliation in a meaningful way on campus and within the Greek community.”

title IX lawsuit

Those allegations relate to similar ones made by the university’s former Title IX coordinator in a lawsuit filed in October.

Robinette Kelley — who also served as Iowa State’s equal opportunity director — sued her former employer in October, asserting widespread Title IX violations at Iowa State and specially accusing the university of failing to provide her with the necessary authority and support.

Kelley filed her lawsuit just hours after another former Iowa State student sued the school and Kelley for not properly handling her allegations of sexual assault.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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