A former Kent State University softball player who says she was raped by her coach’s son filed a complaint Tuesday asking the Supreme Court of Ohio to order the release of records that could shine new light on how the university handled her case.
The student, Lauren Kesterson, alleges that Kent State officials not only declined to investigate her report but colluded with the accused student’s mother to cover up the case. The coach, Karen Linder, later resigned. When Kesterson attempted to use state open-records laws to obtain documents related to the case and the coach’s resignation, the university denied much of her request.
“Ohio law makes clear that Kent State has the legal obligation to release the records,” Ashlie Case Sletvold, one of Kesterson’s lawyers, said. “We can only assume that the records do not paint a very flattering picture of Kent State’s response to sexual assault allegations. We believe that if the university was proud of the way it handled this matter, it would release the records and stand behind its approach.”
Eric Mansfield, executive director of media relations for Kent State, declined to comment on the complaint, saying, “Once we have been served with the complaint, we will respond accordingly.”
In February, Kesterson, who is now a senior at Kent State, filed a federal lawsuit against the university in Ohio. According to the lawsuit, Kesterson became friends with Linder’s son, a Kent State baseball player named Tucker Linder, during her freshman year in 2012. That December, Kesterson said, the two were in her dorm room, where they “engaged in minor intimacies.” When Tucker Linder tried to have sex, according to the lawsuit, Kesterson told him to stop “at least 10 times.”
Instead, Kesterson said, he raped her.
Kesterson did not report the rape because she was afraid of how it would affect her softball career, according to the suit, but she was so traumatized by the assault that her grades slipped and she remained visibly distressed to those that knew her. That included her coach. By May 2014, the lawsuit states, Karen Linder had grown so concerned about Kesterson's behavior that she asked the player if she had been assaulted.
When Kesterson said she had been raped, Linder allegedly replied, “It wasn’t my son, was it?”
According to the lawsuit, Karen Linder called Kesterson’s mother and apologized. Tucker Linder sent Kesterson a text, also apologizing. But Karen Linder never reported the allegation to the university’s Title IX coordinator, as university policy requires, nor did the coach direct the player to the university’s services for victims of sexual assault. Her coach, Kesterson said, asked her not to tell anyone else about the rape.
The coach’s son was not punished by the university, but he did not return to campus the following academic year. Kesterson said her suffering only continued, however. As Kesterson’s junior year began, Karen Linder allegedly criticized the player for “losing control” during practices and warm-ups. That December, according to the lawsuit, Kesterson was required to attend a team meeting and Christmas party at Linder’s house, which was decorated with photographs of the coach's son.
“Kesterson had to exchange gifts with her teammates,” the lawsuit states, “under a life-sized Fathead wall decal of her rapist.”
The summer after her junior year, Kesterson finally learned about the university’s Title IX policies and realized how Linder should have handled her case. Kesterson decided to file a Title IX complaint against her coach. She met with the university’s deputy coordinator for Title IX, who, according to the lawsuit, said she would file a formal complaint within 24 hours, including no-contact orders against Karen and Tucker Linder, who was set to return to campus that fall.
Then, according to the lawsuit, Joel Nielsen, the university’s athletics director, intervened. Instead of filing the complaint as required by the university’s policies, Nielsen allegedly set up a meeting with Karen Linder. Two days later, the softball team’s assistant coach sent an email to players announcing an emergency meeting. Linder was resigning as head coach.
Later that week, Linder spoke about her resignation to the local newspaper, the Record-Courier. The former coach did not mention the assault allegations, instead blaming her departure on “entitled” athletes.
“It's time for me to move in another direction, because the world of athletics has changed,” Linder said. “The kids are different, the recruiting process is different, the university and the administration is different. I feel like my job has become centered around trying to make everyone happy, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to do that without compromising my values and principles.”
In her lawsuit, Kesterson said word got out about her complaint and the team’s staff members and players began retaliating against her. She soon left the team.
Kesterson filed her lawsuit in February. In April, Linder asked for the suit to be dismissed. In her petition, the former coach does not deny failing to report the alleged assault to the university’s Title IX office. Instead, Linder argues that, as a Title IX lawsuit, Kesterson’s complaint failed to establish that the player was deliberately mistreated by the coach based on her gender. Furthermore, Linder said she is entitled to qualified immunity because she is a state employee.
Kent State also asked that the lawsuit be dismissed, but admitted that “Linder had a duty under university policy to report allegations of sexual assault to the appropriate Kent State officials and did not do so.” The university denies, however, that its athletics director knew of the allegations or that he intervened in the case.
“Kent State University supports and promotes policies prohibiting sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and retaliation,” the university said in a statement Wednesday. “We enforce our policies and protocols with prompt and impartial investigations. We also offer comprehensive support to victims of sexual violence. These policies and practices reflect our core commitment to fostering a safe, respectful environment across our eight-campus system. The university cannot comment on the specifics of litigation or other details protected by privacy laws.”
In April, Kesterson’s lawyers requested several records from the university in an attempt to bolster her claims. Among many other similar documents, the lawyers requested “all records of communication between Joel Nielsen and Karen Linder from Aug. 20, 2015, to the present regarding Lauren Kesterson.”
The university responded in June, denying nearly all of the requests, including those about correspondence containing specific references to Kesterson. Seventeen of the 21 requests were denied for being overly broad. “Requests for ‘all records’ containing references to a specific person or topic are considered overly broad and therefore improper record requests,” the university’s general counsel stated in a letter to Sletvold, one of Kesterson’s lawyers.
The university cited a 2008 Ohio Supreme Court case as reasoning for denying the requests. In that case, a lawyer named Jeffrey Glasgow requested “all emails sent or received” by Shannon Jones in her capacity as a state representative, as well as all text messages and written correspondence. The court ruled that Glasgow’s request was overly broad.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the Glasgow decision is “very far afield” from Kesterson’s request.
“Ohio law says that a request is overly broad only if the agency can't tell what the requester is seeking,” LoMonte said. “This is a reasonably well-detailed description that gives the university fair notice of what the requester wants, and that's all the requester is obligated to provide. Since the request is tied to specific historical events of relatively recent and time-limited vintage, the scope of responsive documents should be pretty discrete.”
The university did provide Kesterson and her lawyers with more than 700 pages of personnel records and other documents in response to an earlier records request in February, including insurance policies, Kesterson’s Title IX complaint, emails to athletes from the university’s assistant athletic director and records of payment to Karen Linder. While Linder’s contract said if she resigned prior to 2016, she would owe the university money, Kent State instead paid her 25 percent of her base salary upon her resignation.
"Linder abused her power as a university official and state employee to suppress Lauren’s report of gender-based assault and then retaliated against her for coming forward," Sletvold said. "Any reasonable public official would know that kind of conduct was forbidden. It’s no mystery that you can’t cover up a rape."
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