Whether the University Did Enough

A federal appeals court found that Iowa State officials were not indifferent to a sexual assault survivor when they declined to move the student she accused of rape.

February 18, 2019
 

Iowa State University did not violate the federal law protecting students against gender discrimination when it declined to move a rapist from a dormitory near his victim, an appeals court ruled Friday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit backed the decision of a federal district court to dismiss a lawsuit by a former student, Melissa Maher, who sued in 2016.

Maher reported her rape in March 2014 to the institution, which began investigating that May. The university barred the student she accused, Patrick Whetstone, from interacting with her.

When Maher came back to the university for the next academic year, she discovered that Whetstone was assigned to a residence hall close to hers. At this point, the university was still investigating Maher’s report and had not held a formal hearing to judge the allegations. Court documents state that Maher would see him an average of twice a week.

When Maher and her parents met with Iowa State officials to request that Whetstone be moved, they were told that he could not be until the investigation ended. Administrators offered to instead put Maher in a single-person room meant for emergencies, or she and her roommate could move to a converted den space with other women or a nearby hotel.

Maher declined these options, adamant that Whetstone be moved.

About a month after Maher and her parents met with administrators, Whetstone was found responsible for the rape and was eventually expelled.

Despite this, Maher suffered from anxiety from the assault and withdrew from the university shortly after. In 2015, police charged Whetstone with third-degree sexual abuse in the case, and in 2016, he pled guilty, being sentenced to two years of probation.

Maher, in her lawsuit from 2016, accused Iowa State of infringing on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 for not moving Whetstone or providing her with acceptable alternatives.

A U.S. District Court judge eventually dismissed the case, finding that Iowa State hadn’t violated the legal standard of “deliberate indifference.” Maher took her lawsuit to the appeals court, which agreed with the lower court.

“While Maher’s preference was that ISU move Whetstone, it was not deliberately indifferent for ISU to wait to take such action until the hearing process concluded because ISU was respecting Whetstone’s procedural due process rights,” Judge Raymond Gruender wrote for the court.

Iowa State did not respond to request for comment but in a statement told the Gazette newspaper in Iowa it was pleased that the district court initially dismissed the case. Officials said their thoughts were primarily with Maher and other sexual assault survivors.

“We are deeply saddened that Ms. Maher experienced this traumatic sexual assault and the devastating impact caused by the criminal conduct of a fellow student,” the statement reads.

S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults with colleges and universities on Title IX and security issues, said the ruling matches decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I recommend that institutions have means in place to minimize the impact on students reporting sexual assault by not requiring them to relocate, noting that any due process that may be required for an interim action or protective measure is going to be less than what may be required for final action,” Carter wrote in an email.

Taylor S. Parker, the compliance coordinator and deputy Title IX coordinator at the Ringling College of Art and Design, said that Iowa State in this case had “failed” both students.

She said that while the court bought in to Iowa State’s argument, Parker disagreed that moving Whetstone would be considered some sort of disciplinary measure. She said that while the university failed in meeting the “deliberate indifference” standard, in practicality, Maher saw her attacker regularly and the university didn’t step in to remedy that.

Iowa State could have avoided the entire lawsuit by being more proactive and making sure that the two were not placed near each in the first place, Parker said.

When a no-contact order has been issued, institutions should work with all offices -- housing, the registrar, even students’ professors -- to make sure that students don’t interact, Parker said.

Privacy advocates might question giving all those employees access to student information, but Parker said it’s a necessary step.

“Universities need to uphold their end of the agreement,” Parker said, referring to no-contact orders. “If they are making it challenging and difficult for a student to comply with those, then they have to start looking into the contact orders and not jut pay lip service.”

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