Liberty University facing another claim it mishandled report of sexual assault
Already facing lawsuits from 22 women over its handling of past sexual assault claims, Liberty University is being sued again by another Jane Doe who says she was raped by a fellow student during a party last year and was denied protection and accommodations by Liberty under Title IX law.
In the suit filed by the law firm Joseph, Greenwald & Laake, P.A., the student said she was assaulted at an off-campus apartment complex exactly one year ago today and reported it quickly to authorities on campus. But instead of investigating the incident, she said the university denied her services, punished her for coming forward and forced her to be in the same environment as her alleged assailant.
“Despite their knowledge of the incident, Liberty failed to take any action or protective measures in response,” attorneys said. “Instead, Liberty systematically demonstrated deliberate indifference, retaliated against Jane Doe, and perpetuated the sexually hostile and dangerous environment on and around campus.”
The complaint alleges that administrators told Jane Doe she violated a student honor code called the “Liberty Way” by being involved with students who were reportingly drinking on the night in question and in the presence of men at an off-campus venue. She said she had to perform community service for coming forward. Because of the emotional and physical toll from the incident and in the weeks following, Jane Doe said her academic work and mental health suffered and eventually it led to her leaving the university.
“Liberty’s treatment of Jane Doe is emblematic of the kinds of institutional barriers that sexual assault survivors regularly face in getting justice,” said Erika Jacobsen White, principal at Joseph Greenwald & Laake and counsel for Jane Doe. “Rather than immediately taking steps to protect our client, Liberty engaged in a pattern of retaliation that included failing to provide her with any reasonable accommodations at all in order as she was recovering from the trauma that she endured from being raped. Instead of ensuring Jane Doe’s safety, Liberty engaged in classic victim-blaming, compounding her trauma.”
In addition, the lawsuit filed in District Court in Virginia states that during the time after the report, she had to endure being close to the person she said raped her.
“Following her complaints, Liberty failed to take any meaningful steps to keep Jane Doe’s assailant away from her, allowed him to continue to harass her on campus—even being assigned to the same housing as Jane Doe where she was raped,” Jacobson White said. “This kind of institutional discrimination, harassment and retaliation is designed to silence victims and perpetuates a toxic culture of oppression.”
A spokesperson at Liberty issued this statement to University Business: “The university has not reviewed the lawsuit and therefore declines to make a specific, public comment on the suit at this time. Liberty University will certainly address these claims in court.”
The history of Liberty
The newest Jane Doe is among a large group of women who have come forward with claims that they had their sexual assault reports mishandled and/or faced hostility by the university. A dozen women filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New York last July that claimed the culture at Liberty and its student conduct code put them in precarious positions as far back as 20 years ago—to stay silent or to come forward, report potential criminal behavior and be subjected to pushback on the Liberty Way. That code, among other things, forbids sexual activity among campus members who are not married and also engaging in any behaviors that might be construed as LGBTQ.
According to their lawsuit: “Liberty University has intentionally created a campus environment where sexual assaults and rapes are foreseeably more likely to occur than they would in the absence of Liberty’s policies, creating an unsafe campus environment in three key ways: (a) the creation and weaponization of “the Liberty Way” that makes it difficult or impossible for students to report sexual violence; (b) the promotion of a tacit but widely observed policy that condoned sexual violence, especially by male student-athletes; and (c) the public and repeated retaliation against women who did report their victimization.”
They claim that reporting sexual assaults was discouraged by resident assistants who cited the Liberty Way and potential punishments by the university for violations. Those who did come forward said they were fined or disciplined, according to the lawsuit. Some said they did not report them at all for fear of reprisal.
In October, President Jerry Prevo released this statement to address the reports from the 12 women: “The allegations in the Jane Doe 1-12 v. Liberty University lawsuit are deeply troubling if they turn out to be true. Many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years. Liberty has invested mightily in programs and personnel to help maintain a safe campus and to support any and all victims of sexual assault that came forward.
“Liberty has a robust non-discrimination policy, which includes an amnesty policy to encourage victims to make reports without fearing that their involvement in other activities like drinking alcohol or extramarital sex will be disciplined under the student honor code. That policy includes a fair process for resolving disputes about rape, sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation, as well as providing supportive measures as appropriate. … Liberty University will not tolerate Title IX violations, sexual abuse or sexual assault in any form at any time.”
Aside from the lawsuits and firestorm of media including the fallout of former leader Jerry Falwell Jr., the university has faced scrutiny from Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who have asked the Department of Education to investigate how Liberty is handling claims of sexual assault and rape. “Any campus policy that deters or discourages a survivor of sexual assault from speaking out and seeking justice is wrong,” Kaine said in a statement in November. “Students who bravely speak out deserve to be heard and to have their claims taken seriously. My office is urging the Department of Education to investigate these claims against Liberty and take appropriate action.”
According to the DOE’s Office of Civil Rights, there are two pending gender discrimination cases currently under investigation at Liberty University, both involving Title IX—one for procedural requirements from June 2020 and another for retaliation from June 2015. No other information is given.
The current lawsuit seeks to hold Liberty accountable for noncompliance, according to attorneys, but also to ensure that the campus is safe.
“Students should not be afraid for their safety or fear their school’s response to reports of sexual assault,” said Drew LaFramboise, senior counsel at Joseph, Greenwald & Laake. “This suit seeks justice for our client, and we hope it will compel Liberty to make institutional changes to protect survivors of sexual assault.”