Thursday, May 28, 2015

Former Softball Player Sues St. Joseph's University Over Hazing

This month, St. Joseph's University suspended its softball team with three games left in the season in response to reports that the team engaged in hazing practices to initiate new players.  Now the university faces a lawsuit filed by one of the players who claimed that she was the victim of sexual harassment as part of that hazing, that university officials knew about and failed to adequately respond.

The complaint describes a seven-day period during the plaintiff's freshman season that was kicked off by intimidating letters with weird sexual content.  The plaintiff was required to engage in simulated sex and watch others do the same.  Her teammates required new players to answer questions about her sexual experiences, drink alcohol, and answer to demeaning nicknames.  However, the administration discovered and curtailed the hazing, though it did not initiate a formal investigation or disciplinary process.  Subsequently, during the plaintiff's sophomore season, the hazing ritual resumed again, with upperclass players insisting that they were "picking up where it was left off," so the same rituals began again. 

The plaintiff alleges that the university violated Title IX, among other legal obligations. The standard for institutional liability under Title IX first requires that the plaintiff endure serious harassment of a sexual nature. This excludes from the court's consideration allegations related to alcohol pressure and non-sexual nicknames -- including the allegation that coach called her one that was, while not sexual, pretty demeaning and gross.  Next, the plaintiff must prove that the university had actual notice and responded with deliberate indifference.  Here, the plaintiff must rely on the hazing she endured freshman year of providing notice to the university that the team would continue its behavior in subsequent seasons. The university responded to the freshman year hazing by shutting it down, so the plaintiff must convince the court that more was required to avoid committing deliberate indifference.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, many courts interpret deliberate indifference very narrowly to exclude just about anything north of nothing.  So the plaintiff will have to convince the court that what little the administration did to the team in her freshman season was tantamount to nothing.  The university would seemingly not be liable for the sophomore season hazing, since it has seemed to responded swiftly and strongly by suspending the team. 

For other recent stories about universities getting tough about hazing, see here (Stanford band) and here (Western Kentucky swim team).