Tuesday, February 12, 2008

UW Must Defend its Handling of Student Rape by Football Player

Yesterday the Washington State Court of Appeals reinstated a Title IX case against the University of Washington, paving the way for UW to defend at trial whether its handling of a football player's alleged rape of another student violated Title IX.

The plaintiff, referred in the opinion as S.S., was the student equipment manager for the UW football team. She alleges that in 2000, she was raped by then-UW football player Roc Alexander, (who is now in the NFL) , with whom she had recently ended a relationship. When athletic department officials found this out, they encouraged S.S. to submit to a mediation with the University ombudsman and did not inform her of the University's judicial disciplinary process or other options available to student rape victims. S.S. felt pressured to agree in order to keep her position with the Athletic Department.

The mediation was attended by the ombudsman, S.S., Alexander, and the assistant athletic director, Marie Tuite. S.S. argued that Alexander should be suspended from several games. Alexander recanted earlier statements of contrition and denied the allegation of rape. He also threatened to leave UW if he was suspended. Tuite stated that she would not consider suspending Alexander because the media "would ask why he was not playing" -- a statement that suggests she was primarily concerned about keeping the case out of the news. In the end, Tuite and the ombudsman decided that Alexander should attend counseling and perform community service.

The Court of Appeals determined that these facts, if proven, would satisfy the liability standard for peer harassment under Title IX. A jury could find on the facts alleged that the school's response constituted "deliberate indifference" to the reported rape, including such facts as: "a lack of appropriate discipline of her rapist,... keeping the matter out of the public eye to avoid negative publicity, offering only repeated mediation as an alternative remedial measure, repeatedly suggesting that S.S. leave her job with the football program where the rapist would remain, [and failing] to investigate...her rape report, and--in the absence of investigation--questioning her truthfulness...." (among other reasons).

Additionally, the court agreed that discrimination alleged by S.S. was sufficiently "severe and pervasive" to warrant liability -- even though, as UW argued, S.S. was only raped one time. The court supported its conclusion by comparing this case to others in which discrimination was deemed "pervasive" because the school contributed to the detrimental effects of an initial instance of harassment or assault.

According to the Seattle Times, the plaintiff is glad that "Finally, the courts are on my side -- at least for now." The UW, which hasn't yet decided whether it will appeal, contests S.S.'s version of the facts and maintains that S.S. never called the underlying incident a "rape" until she filed suit against university. But while it may not have direct bearing on the facts of this particular case, it is also worth noting that a "disturbing level of criminal conduct and hooliganism" -- including another instances of sexual assault in 2000 -- by UW football players, enabled and covered by former coach Rick Neuheisel and athletic director Barbara Hedges, has recently come to light.

Decision: S.S. v. Alexander and the University of Washington, 2008 WL 352618 (Wash. App. Div. 1, Feb. 11, 2008).