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By Vivian Nunez
March 25, 2016

There are currently four Title IX investigations open at the University of Tennessee and one civil lawsuit alleging the University of a history of mishandling cases of sexual assault.

The civil lawsuit opens with two important umbrella accusations—the first being that the University has a history of “deliberate indifference and clearly unreasonable acts and omissions that created a hostile sexual environment to female students before a sexual assault on a student by a fellow student by conduct and policies making a student more vulnerable to sexual assault itself” and second, “a clearly unreasonable response after a sexual assault that causes a student to endure additional harassment.”

The details of how this case unfolds and the verdict that stems from it could potentially set precedent for how other universities are expected to handle instances of sexual assault on campus moving forward, especially when it comes to the cultures that the Universities allow for on campus.

Throughout the lawsuit the lawyer for the six original plaintiffs notes how the University allowed for a culture that was hostile towards survivors of sexual assault and favored the athletes who were typically accused of having assaulted them.

A study released by Senator Claire McCaskill’s (D-MO) office in 2014 found that about 20 percent of the largest public institutions give athletic departments oversight in campus sexual assault cases involving student athletes.

“I don’t need to explain why that is a big problem…I think it would scare just about any victim into the shadows,” said Sen. McCaskill to the Washington Post.

At the University of Tennessee, the equal treatment of non-athlete students and student-athletes is allegedly nonexistent. The civil suit brought against the University explains just how involved the University is in protecting its student-athletes:

“Incidents involving athletes and misconduct, including specifically sexual violence, have been part of a hostile sexual environment and culture of the University of Tennessee Athletic Department for more than a decade. Plaintiffs aver that the University’s actions affirmatively and deliberately created (and creates) a hostile discriminatory sexual environment for female students and acted with deliberate indifference in its response to incidents of sexual assault in a pattern, practice, policy, and custom of grossly inadequate discipline and resolution in specific favor of male, ‘major sports’ athletes. Plaintiffs further aver that said favoritism included interfering and stopping the disciplinary process, concealing charges and investigations involving male athletes, arranging for specialized defense counsel for male athletes at UT facing criminal and sexual assault charges, encouraging parties with underage drinking to benefit recruiting, discouraged reporting by creating a culture of known tolerance for and protection of misconduct, and misusing the Tennessee Uniform Procedures Act by Chancellor (Check) selecting judges to hear cases involving athletes in a delaying process not in compliance with Title IX.”

Colleen Ryan, a Global Studies major of the University of Tennessee’s Class of 2017, co-chair of Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee, as well as one of the co-organizers for a rally that protested the University of Tennessee’s handling of the most recent civil case, found particular issue with how the University was approaching the student-athlete angle of the case.

“I found myself incredibly frustrated by the dismissive attitude perpetuated in the February 23 press conference that sixteen UT coaches had to discuss campus culture,” explained Ryan via email to Generation Progress. “[Their] insistence that campus culture is great seemed far removed from the experience of the average student, especially the average non-athlete female student, and the stances taken really invalidated the experiences that survivors on this campus have been brave enough to come forward and make known.”

Ultimately, this frustration, led to Ryan and Rayah Kirby, a fellow student, to organize a protest outside of the second press conference the athletic department held at the end of February with the goal to “ remind Mr. Hart and other administrators on this campus that the focus of this conversation and actions taken moving forward need to be survivor-centered,” shared Ryan with Generation Progress.

A sentiment that according to Ryan is less visible on campus after the civil suit came to be.

“Women, people of color, LGBTQ+ students, and many other marginalized groups experience a hostile campus climate, exacerbated by the conservative context that UT Knoxville is situated in. The lawsuit has brought out some of the worst of this on campus, with victim-blaming rhetoric increasingly public and a general dismissal of the experiences of survivors,” explained Ryan.

Under law, all victims of sexual assault who report their assault have a right to a school-led investigation that should last no longer than 60 days. Under Title IX, any student is on campus is guaranteed a culture on campus in which students should feel protected and like the environment is conducive to learning. And at the heart of the lawsuit is the fact that the University of Tennessee lacks an environment in which survivors of sexual assault, or others, feel safe on campus.

On a national level, of the 1 in 5 women who will be sexually assaulted during their time in college, less than five percent will come forth as victims of sexual assault.

The Tennessean looked back on incidents of sexual assault on campus from February 2013 to April 2015 and found that at the end of each of these alleged assaults, regardless of whether the alleged accuser was found guilty or not, the victim left the University.

“I just want people to know that me and the other girls did not know each other before this,” explains one of the plaintiffs in the case against the University, to CNN. “We came together to change the environment to change what is done about sexual assault and I don’t understand why people think we’re lying about it.”

The University of Tennessee has actively attempted to downplay the newsworthiness of the civil suit — especially in light of the Peyton Manning, now retired NFL quarterback, headlines that were associated with the case — by denying any truth to the allegations being brought against it.

“Any assertion that we do not take sexual assault seriously enough is simply not true,” said the University’s lawyer. “To claim that we have allowed a safe culture to exist contrary to our institutional commitment to providing a safe environment for our students or that we do not support those who report sexual assaults is just false.”

Currently the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating over 150 colleges and universities for allegedly violating Title IX and mishandling sexual assault cases. The manner in which each investigation, whether led by the OCR or in a civil suit, is resolved sets precedent for the next case and for the culture that exists on campuses across the nation.

“It’s an issue that we’ve had trouble raising widespread attention to on campus in the past, but I am really hopeful that the confluence of events around this issue— simultaneously being under investigation by the federal government, this civil lawsuit, and several ongoing criminal and student misconduct cases— will bring new perspectives into the conversation and ultimately see meaningful change result,” said Ryan.

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