Rape lawsuits against University of Colorado dismissed
Associated Press Writer
DENVER ” In an abrupt ending to the case that ignited the University of Colorado’s football recruiting scandal, a judge dismissed a federal lawsuit Thursday filed by two women who accused the school of failing to prevent them from being sexually assaulted by players and recruits.
After months of court filings and hearings, U.S. District Robert Blackburn said the women had failed to meet two key criteria in claiming the school violated federal Title IX gender equity law by fostering an atmosphere that led to their alleged assaults at a 2001 off-campus party. Police investigated but no sexual assault charges were filed.
Specifically, the judge said Lisa Simpson and the other woman had failed to prove the school had actual knowledge of sexual harassment of female students by football players and recruits. He also said they didn’t show the school was deliberately indifferent to any known sexual harassment.
Both standards must be met in order to sue a public university under Title IX, Blackburn said.
“There is no dispute that the sexual assaults described by the plaintiffs constitute severe and objectively offensive sexual harassment,” the judge wrote in a 30-page decision.
However, Blackburn concluded that “a reasonable fact finder could not find that the university was deliberately indifferent to the risk that CU football players and recruits would sexually assault female university students as part of the recruiting program.”
The trial was scheduled to begin in just two months. Under Blackburn’s decision, the case cannot be refiled and the school was awarded court costs.
“We’re real happy right now. It’s a huge victory for the University of Colorado, and frankly for hundreds of other universities around the country,” said Dan Reilly, who was hired by the university as a trial lawyer. “We’re not shocked (by the ruling). Title IX was not intended to apply to situations like this.”
University President Elizabeth Hoffman was also pleased with the decision.
“This ruling supports what we’ve always known, that this university has never acted with indifference toward its students. We have always cared deeply for our students and have worked hard to create a supportive environment in which they can learn.”
In a written statement, Simpson’s attorneys said they disagreed with the ruling and were deciding whether to appeal.
“We are concerned the court did not have critical evidence before it in its decision,” the statement said. “Lisa is disappointed with this setback, but she is committed to having her day in court.”
The recruiting scandal has dominated headlines in Colorado and beyond for months. Gov. Bill Owens stepped in last year and appointed the attorney general to lead a grand jury investigation, which resulted in a single indictment against a former football recruiting aide for soliciting a prostitute and misusing a school cell phone.
A separate probe, backed by the CU Board of Regents, concluded that drugs, alcohol and sex were used to entice blue chip recruits to the Boulder campus but said none of the activity was knowingly sanctioned by university officials.
The school responded by overhauling oversight of the athletics department and putting some of the most stringent policies in place for any football recruiting program. The fallout included the pending resignation of Hoffman and the departure of Athletics Director Dick Tharp, even as football coach Gary Barnett stayed on to guide his team to a bowl game victory last season.
The scandal erupted last year when a deposition quoting Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan was made public. Keenan said she believed the university used sex and alcohol to lure top recruits and that school officials knew it.
The grand jury investigated claims that nine women since 1997 had been assaulted by football players or recruits, but declined to file charges in part because of the reluctance of any of the women to come forward.
In her lawsuit, Simpson, who agreed to let her name be published, said she was sexually assaulted by football players or recruits during the party at her apartment. A similar lawsuit filed by another woman, who asked her name not be published, was combined with Simpson’s.
The case was ugly at times: Simpson’s videotaped deposition was released to the public and passages from her diary began showing up in newspapers and Web sites, including a statement that she wanted to “ruin the lives” of players who were there that night.
As the case wound its way through hearing after hearing, other allegations against the football team surfaced, including former CU kicker Katie Hnida’s claim that a teammate raped her in 2000.
But in court, the women had to show the university was deliberately indifferent to actual knowledge of harassment and that such misconduct deprived them of access to educational opportunities as guaranteed by the federal Title IX law.
Asked by the school to decide that issue before trial, Blackburn ruled against the women.
Cynthia Stone, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the ruling could discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward.
“The reason why victims don’t come forward is the loss of privacy, fear of being blamed and fear of not being believed. And these circumstances (the ruling) unfortunately may reinforce that,” she said.
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