A U.S. District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit accusing Iowa State University of Title IX violations — which the U.S. Office of Civil Rights also is investigating — after finding the university “was not deliberately indifferent” to the woman’s plight.
“While there may have been other ways for ISU to have handled this unfortunate sequence of events, such possible options do not render ISU’s actions deliberately indifferent,” Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Helen Adams wrote in her Tuesday decision to grant Iowa State’s request for summary judgment, dismissing the suit.
The case stems from a sex assault in ISU housing on March 30, 2014, according to the lawsuit filed by Melissa Maher in September 2016. Facts in the case largely are undisputed, which Adams identified among the standards required for a summary judgment.
The dismissal does not necessarily affect the U.S. Office of Civil Rights’ investigation associated with the same case. That office has three open investigations at both Iowa State and University of Iowa, including ones related to sexual violence and the schools’ grievance procedures.
In a statement about this week’s order, Iowa State administrators said, “While we are pleased with the Court’s ruling, our thoughts are primarily with Ms. Maher and other survivors of sexual assault.”
“We are deeply saddened that Ms. Maher experienced this traumatic sexual assault and the devastating impact caused by the criminal conduct of a fellow student,” according to the statement.
Maher, a former ISU student who now lives in Texas, reported her assault to ISU police, who dispatched an officer to meet with her within 15 to 20 minutes, according to the lawsuit. The officer took Maher to the hospital for a rape exam and enlisted an advocate, who told Maher a criminal investigation and prosecution would be “hard.”
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Maher initially declined to identify her attacker but later changed her mind, and on May 29, 2014, named him as Patrick Whetstone, who today is 22. Iowa State administrators who interviewed Maher told her she could get a no-contact order from Whetstone, which Maher requested and received.
Administrators also spelled out Iowa State’s complaint and criminal adjudication processes and said they could take months. Robinette Kelley, who served as ISU Equal Opportunity Director at the time, told Maher the university could suspend Whetstone if they determined he posed a danger to her or others, but administrators decided he didn’t “because the two had not had any contact for 60 days.”
When Maher returned for the fall semester in August, she moved in with a roommate to Frederiksen Court, an on-campus apartment complex. Whetstone lived in an adjacent building, and Maher saw him an average of twice a week, according to court documents.
Maher and her family complained to Iowa State, and administrators asked if Maher wanted to move. On Aug. 20, Maher and her roommate met with administrators to discuss housing options — but the university was overcapacity and no two-bedroom apartments were available. Maher could have chosen a single-person emergency room, or the pair could have gone into a converted den space with several other women or to the Memorial Union Hotel on a temporary basis.
“Maher declined these options,” according to court documents. “She preferred that ISU move Whetstone.”
Iowa State said an administrative law judge had not yet found Whetstone violated the Code of Student Conduct and so it could not move him. A month later, on Sept. 19, Kelley concluded Whetstone had sexually assaulted Maher, and the Office of Student Conduct charged him with violating the Code of Student Conduct. An administrative law judge later upheld that finding and expelled him.
Due to stress, Maher withdrew from Iowa State around Sept. 25, 2014.
In January, 2015, ISU police charged Whetstone with third-degree sexual abuse, and he later — in September 2016 — pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse and was sentenced to two years probation.
Maher in her lawsuit accused Iowa State of Title IX violations for failing to move Whetstone or provide her with acceptable housing alternatives.
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“Maher argues that ISU’s discrimination against her began when it asked her to move instead of her male attacker,” according to court documents. “Maher asserts that this was the point ISU denied her the rights it provided to Whetstone: he was able to stay in his apartment and continue his education, but she could not continue her education with him living so close.”
But Judge Adams found Iowa State’s refusal to move Whetstone “was not clearly unreasonable or deliberate indifference” because he had “procedural rights that ISU had to respect.”
“Whetstone had a right to a hearing on the merits of his charges,” according to the judge.
Additionally, she found Iowa State’s overall response was sufficient.
“It responded in a way that it felt balanced Maher’s rights with Whetstone’s rights,” Adams wrote.
In addition to the ongoing federal Title IX investigations, Iowa State is facing other lawsuits related to its handling of Title IX mandates and sexual assault allegations — including one from Kelley, who no longer works for Iowa State.
But, in a statement Wednesday, the university noted steps the court cataloged it took to meet Title IX obligations.
“The Court recognized that ISU did not ‘ignore Maher’s report’ and that it took numerous actions ‘designed to help Maher,’” according to the statement. “The Court also recognized the difficult balance the university must navigate in protecting and supporting the needs of alleged victims while satisfying its due process obligations to alleged perpetrators.”
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