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Former Michigan State University students have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appellate court’s December 2019 decision in their case against the university, in which a judge delivered a precedent-setting and unfavorable decision for victims of sexual misconduct.

The petition to the Supreme Court, made by Emily Kollaritsch and other women who say they were raped by the same male student while attending Michigan State, asks the justices to solve a “circuit split” between appellate courts across the country. Several courts disagree on how colleges should be held liable when sexual harassment complainants experience further harm after filing complaints. The petition calls on the justices to decide whether colleges can be held responsible for failing to address students’ “vulnerability” to sexual misconduct, or if preventable sexual misconduct must actually occur for colleges to be found in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the law that prohibits sex discrimination at federally funded institutions.

The case is centered on Kollaritsch and argues that Michigan State failed to protect her from being further harassed by a male student after the university found him responsible for sexually harassing her in 2011. The university issued a no-contact order and Kollaritsch said the male student broke it, but Michigan State could not prove he had. Kollaritsch also said she suffered panic attacks as a result of seeing the male student on campus, which she said indicated that Michigan State was “deliberately indifferent” to her sexual harassment. She said she suffered further harm by the male students’ presence on campus.

The 2019 opinion issued in the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said Michigan State could not be held liable because Kollaritsch could only prove she experienced mental health challenges from seeing the male student and not “further actionable sexual harassment” by him. The case was sent back to the district court for dismissal.

The Sixth Circuit opinion deepened a split in how different appellate courts interpret a 1999 Supreme Court case that found colleges can be held liable for “deliberate indifference” to sexual misconduct on campus under Title IX. Some circuit courts maintain that if a victimized student is merely vulnerable to harassment, even if it does not actually occur, then the institution is failing to provide an equal educational environment and could be held liable. The Eighth and Sixth Circuits hold that alleged victims must “prove additional, post-notice sexual harassment in order to state a claim for damages under Title IX,” according to Kollaritsch’s petition.

The petition was filed on July 2. On July 23, the court approved an extension requested by Michigan State to move the deadline for when the university's lawyers must file a response. Michigan State will respond to the petition by Sept. 9, the case’s docket says.