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ACLU claims dismissive behavior by Carnegie Mellon in Title IX complaint

Due to the university's dismissive response to a student's sexual assault complaint, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a Title IX complaint against Carnegie Mellon University on Thursday.

Title IX is a section of the Education Amendments of 1972 that prohibits any kind of gender discrimination in education.

The ACLU filed the complaint for a Carnegie Mellon student, identified by the pseudonym "Gabrielle," after the university allegedly failed to protect her from an abusive ex-girlfriend.

According to the student's testimony in an ACLU blog post, she dated her assailant for six months as a freshman, during which her “girlfriend became verbally and sexually abusive." She continued, "I was raped repeatedly and I began to live in fear.”

Gabrielle said in the post that, after the relationship ended, her abuser stalked, harassed, and intimidated her through violent outbursts. Although she did not want to talk about the “more gruesome details of what had happened,” Gabrielle confided in some faculty members about the offender's “verbal harassment and violent tendencies,” according to the post.

Gabrielle wrote that the faculty members organized a “No Contact Agreement” that mandated that the two students not come into contact outside of what was necessary for academics.

During her sophomore year, Gabrielle, who had been diagnosed with PTSD after her experience, moved off campus, but her ex-girlfriend subsequently moved into an apartment across the hall from hers, an act that intimidated Gabrielle according to the Title IX complaint.

Gabrielle wrote that she also continued to see her ex-girlfriend in almost all of her classes due to the intimate nature of their small academic program. Eventually, she filed a complaint through Carnegie Mellon’s community standards process; however, the process proved difficult.

"The campus police officer accused me of seeking revenge by making the report and questioned why I had been in the relationship if I was being so badly abused," Gabrielle wrote.

After a campus hearing and an appeal, Gabrielle’s ex-girlfriend was found guilty of sexual assault, but subsequent action included only a review of the existing No Contact Agreement and a counseling assessment. "[My ex-girlfriend's] consequences, however, were not expulsion or suspension, or anything else that would ensure my safety," Gabrielle wrote.

The ACLU argued in its complaint that “once she reported the violence, the student was subjected to dismissive treatment from campus police, who questioned her motives for filing the report and, without notifying her, informed her abuser that she had filed a report against her. The University Disciplinary Committee also failed to address her concerns.”

Additionally, the mutual No Contact order used to remedy the situation was "completely inappropriate in this type of situation because [it] empower[s] the perpetrator to use the order as a possible retaliatory tool against the victim," according to the complaint.

After the offender was notified of the police report, she followed Gabrielle once more, according to the complaint. The ACLU wrote that Gabrielle feared for her safety and immediately moved out of her apartment upon finding out that the offender was notified of the report.

The complaint states that during Gabrielle's hearing, "Several committee members made comments indicating that they minimized the severity of the sexual assaults because Complainant remained in the relationship after the assaults occurred. It also appeared that they inappropriately sympathized with Complainant's assailant. For example, one committee member suggested that when [the offender] sexually assaulted Complainant, [she] merely had a 'different understanding of events.' "

Holly Dennis, a sophomore dramaturgy major, believes that the university should have better protocols in place for victims of sexual assault and harassment.

"[The ACLU website] said that the officer questioned why [the complainant] was in the relationship, and I don't think that's a proper way to assess a relationship," Dennis said. "You can't judge a victim. If the officer was working from the beginning with a sexual assault advisor, he would know how to better address the sensitivity of the situation, to not make the survivor feel so alienated. I think the university seems to have blamed the survivor more than they blamed the abuser, which I think is wrong."

Under Title IX, universities are required to properly respond to sexual harassment and abuse. The ACLU's complaint “asserts that Carnegie Mellon failed to respond adequately to the student’s complaints and instead required the student to bear the burden of addressing the effects of the violence and harassment.”

The Title IX complaint asks the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to require "the university and its employees to undergo ongoing training, review, and monitoring and to redress the effects of its discrimination against the complainant."

Dean of Student Affairs Gina Casalegno wrote in an email, "In order to preserve our commitment to protect the confidentiality of those involved in such matters, the university will not comment. We take very seriously our obligations under Title IX and our commitment to provide a safe and secure environment for our students and other members of the university community."

Modern languages professor Dick Tucker said, "As Title IX Coordinator, I was aware of this matter and how it was handled, and am confident that our policies and practices were appropriately and thoughtfully followed throughout."

Other students have had varied reactions to the Title IX complaint filed by the ACLU.

Katharine Carlson, a junior Medieval and Renaissance studies major, wrote in an email “it is necessary that CMU take seriously reports of abuse not just as performed by a man on a woman, but within homosexual couples, queer-identifying couples, and violence by a woman on a man as well.”

“That Carnegie Mellon failed this student in a matter so grave as security from an abuser is entirely unacceptable,” Carlson continued. “That she was given inadequate protection is bad enough; that she was not taken seriously during the incredibly difficult and frightening course of seeking help, and that her abuser was protected over her is simply despicable.”

Junior professional and creative writing double major Jaime Fawcett said, "Obviously, Carnegie Mellon should report and handle all cases and all situations of sexual abuse and investigate them. They should never be ignored. But I'm also sympathetic with Carnegie, because I feel like there are a lot of different parties involved with the situation — between the accuser, the ex-girlfriend, and the faculty members, other administrators, and the other students that are involved. So I think that the situation is tricky because obviously accusing someone of sexual assault is serious, and it's important to make sure the accusation is viable before taking any serious action."

Carnegie Mellon's current policy against sexual assault and harassment was updated in April and states: "Carnegie Mellon is dedicated to the free exchange of ideas and the intellectual development of all members of its community. For this exchange and development to take place freely, the institution fosters a positive learning, working, and living environment that promotes the confidence to work, study, innovate and perform without fear of sexual harassment or sexual assault."

The policy states that those who violate the policy "by engaging in conduct constituting sexual harassment or sexual assault will be subject to appropriate disciplinary or corrective action, which may include but not be limited to dismissal, expulsion, termination of employment, termination of contract, removal from campus, or other revocation of privileges on campus."

The formal sexual assault complaint procedure, after being initiated by the complainant, is managed by Sexual Harassment Procedure Coordinators, and is followed by an investigation led by the Sexual Harassment Process Coordinator and the committee of investigation. The Sexual Harassment Process Coordinator makes the final evaluation, decision, and following recommendation based on the investigation, subsequent to a hearing.

"Students must be safe in order to pursue their studies. It takes courage for those who have been assaulted and abused in a relationship to speak out, and this case shows that all too often, students’ pleas for help are brushed aside," said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, in an ACLU press release.

The ACLU complaint against Carnegie Mellon comes on the heels of similar issues at other universities. At the University of Southern California, for example, 13 students filed a Title IX complaint with the Office for Civil Rights on May 22. One student claimed that she was rebuffed by the university’s administration after reporting a rape because her assailant “didn't orgasm.”

Students at Swarthmore College also filed a complaint on May 22 with the Office for Civil Rights on the grounds that the university failed to “properly adjudicate sexual assault,” according to an article in The Huffington Post.

At Yale University, 16 students and alumni filed a complaint on March 15, 2011 with the Office for Civil Rights, stating that the university was violating Title IX by failing to respond to several incidents of sexual harassment and by creating a hostile sexual environment.

The ACLU is a national organization dedicated to protecting American civil liberties specifically for the “segments of [the] population that have traditionally been denied their rights, including people of color; women; lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people; prisoners; and people with disabilities," according to its website. The ACLU is known for cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, which ended racial segregation in public schools in the 1950s and resulted from an ACLU complaint.

The complaint against Carnegie Mellon will only become a lawsuit if all other channels are exhausted, such as voluntary compliance on the part of the university.