Suit: Brown University Neglected ‘Endemic’ Sexual Abuse

By Erik Larson | August 10, 2021

Brown University was sued by four current and former students who claim the Ivy League school consistently downplayed complaints about “endemic” sexual violence on campus.

Citing a 2019 survey showing over a quarter of Brown women had experienced non-consensual sexual contact, the suit claims the university’s inadequate response violates Title IX, the federal law barring gender discrimination in schools, as well as its own code of conduct.

“Survivors at Brown are silenced, harmed, dismissed and discouraged from seeking justice by the university,” the group said, adding that they’ll seek class-action status for the case filed last week in federal court in Rhode Island.

The filing comes as the U.S. continues to address claims about the mistreatment of women in schools and the workplace as part of the growing #MeToo movement. Universities have been grappling with the issue even longer, compelled to do so by federal Title IX rules. Lawsuits alleging similar failures have been filed against other universities in recent years.

‘Societal Problem’

Brown said in a statement that the school is committed to protecting students, pointing to changes put in place following the “transformative recommendations” of a university task force in 2015. The university suggested the number of incidents cited in the suit resulted from changes making it easier to report sexual misconduct.

“The increase in students reporting sexual violence, the greater confidence in the adjudication process, the data for students reporting they feel safer at Brown, as well as the ongoing partnership between students and the university around these critical issues, all reflect Brown’s aggressive actions to confront sexual violence,” the school said. “This progress comes from the collective work of our community, but as long as sexual violence is a societal problem, we don’t expect the work ever to be done.”

One of the plaintiffs, Katiana Soenen, claims she was discouraged from making a formal report after she was sexually assaulted in May at an off-campus party hosted by student athletes. According to Soenen, Brown’s Title IX officer stressed to her that incident took place off-campus and said the assailant “would likely not be found responsible.”

No Further Action

Soenen was instead encouraged to report the incident anonymously to “establish a trend of misconduct” for the accused perpetrator, according to the complaint. After Soenen did so, the Title IX officer reached out the alleged attacker, accepted his version of events, forwarded his email apology to her and took no further action, she claims in the suit.

“There was no equitable investigation,” the complaint states. “Rather, Katiana wanted to make a formal complaint but was coerced into the informal process.”

Carter Woodruff likewise claimed Brown did nothing after she complained in 2019 about a male student she said kissed and groped her without her consent, even though it was apparent university staff had had previous complaints about the same perpetrator.

“Nothing came of her report and her assailant later graduated from Brown with no issue or repercussions,” the suit states.

According to the filing, the school has devoted inadequate staff and resources to handling complaints of sexual misconduct. “Despite its known duty to protect its students from harm, Brown not only failed to carry out this duty but actively prevented the reporting of such harm,” the plaintiffs say.

The complaint also accuses the school of negligence, bad-faith breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress and negligent failure to warn, train or educate.

–With assistance from Janet Lorin.

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