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Petition demands UA changes to aid assault survivors

by Jaime Adame | April 27, 2021 at 2:01 a.m.
University of Arkansas students are shown on the lawn in front of Old Main on the campus in Fayetteville in this file photo.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A $20,000 legal settlement paid by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville to a former student found responsible for sexual assault under UA policy has led to demands that more be done for assault survivors.

A petition started Sunday calls for the university to donate $20,001 in support of survivors of sexual violence and to ensure that those reporting assault are updated about legal developments, such as a settlement of the type made public last week.

"John Doe," as he was identified in legal documents, in a lawsuit had claimed gender discrimination and a lack of due process. UA released the settlement agreement under the state's public disclosure law after "Doe" and the university on Wednesday filed a joint motion to dismiss the suit.

More than 1,100 people by Monday evening had signed the petition, co-authored by Gillian Gullett, whose report of sexual assault led to "Doe" being sanctioned by the university for misconduct.

UA settled the lawsuit without telling Gullett, who gave the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette permission to use her name.

"It's incredibly blindsiding not to be notified of this at all or included in the process, especially considering these lawsuits are based on a violation of due process. At this point, I feel like my due process has been violated," Gullett, a May 2020 graduate from UA, said in a phone interview.

In the campus case, UA's Title IX coordinator found "Doe" not responsible for misconduct before a panel ruled in the case on appeal, voting 2-1 in 2018 against "Doe."

The university uses a preponderance of evidence standard, so cases are decided based on whether something is more likely than not to have occurred.

"Doe" was allowed to graduate but was required "to complete Title IX training, 10 hours of community service and an online sexual violence accountability course," according to court documents.

Gullett, 23, took to social media last week to criticize UA for paying out money to "Doe" and also for failing to let her know about a settlement. Gullett said she will have an online meeting today with Chancellor Joe Steinmetz, who signed the settlement agreement, to discuss the petition demands.

Mark Rushing, a UA spokesman, in a statement said that the university's "goals and actions align with those recommended in the petition, including increasing Title IX resources and staffing dedicated to prevention and training, case management and investigations."

He added: "The University of Arkansas will never stop endeavoring for a campus free from sexual violence. The university takes all reports of sexual assault seriously and remains committed to providing fair and thorough processes for complainants and respondents alike."

About informing Gullett of the settlement, Rushing said: "The university attempted to contact the Complainant the day that the Court's Order of Dismissal was issued but was unable to leave a voicemail because the voicemail box was full."

Gullett said she missed a call at 4:16 p.m. from someone at the University of Arkansas.

Gullett noted, however, the earlier dates on the full settlement agreement, which was published on the website of the Democrat-Gazette. The agreement lists a date of April 12 below Steinmetz's signature and a date of April 9 below a redacted signature.

PETITION DEMANDS

Under Title IX, sex-based discrimination is prohibited at schools receiving federal money. Schools must investigate certain cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault as part of a rule set forth by the U.S. Department of Education.

The online petition calls for all parties in UA disciplinary cases falling under Title IX to be notified of legal developments, stating that "individuals involved have the right to know the status of an investigation at any time, and including subsequent lawsuits in the aforementioned policy.

"Nobody, ever again, should have to find out about a lawsuit implicating their Title IX case from a reporter instead of the University," the petition states.

Julia Nall, the 2020-21 student body president, and Coleman Warren, the student body president for the upcoming school year, are the other co-creators of the petition.

The petition lists three other demands: implementating across campus the Callisto online system for documenting evidence; having more "trauma-informed" staff members in UA's Title IX office and student input on those positions; and having UA's University Perspectives class or similar courses for new students include a sexual violence curriculum.

"If these demands are not met, then the campus administration is doing a disservice to the student body and sending a message of apathy toward the issue of sexual assault," Warren, president of UA's Associated Student Government, said in an email.

Nall said she sees a concerning pattern in the university's actions.

"I think when we step back and look at this and all of the other instances of how sexual misconduct has been handled on campus, we see a pattern of a really severe lack of transparency or just poor communication," said Nall, adding that how UA resolved Gullett's case could leave some students hesitant to report sexual assault.

Rushing said Liz Means, UA's Title IX coordinator, has resigned, effective at the end of the month. She took on the role in March 2020.

LEFT IN DARK

Court documents in the "Doe" case referred to Gullett as "Jane Roe," and some advocates have pushed for those reporting sexual violence to be included in legal cases where a student found responsible for misconduct challenges the outcome of a campus disciplinary case.

Outside Arkansas, advocacy groups including Equal Rights Associates have taken up a California case involving a "Jane Roe" left in the dark about a court decision that overturned a university's disciplinary finding.

The UA settlement with "Doe" keeps in place the university's finding that he was responsible for sexual misconduct. The university is providing "Doe" with a letter stating in part that a different conclusion to his case could have been reached under a revision to campus disciplinary procedures that took place in August 2020. The letter also states that no criminal charges were filed against "Doe" and that he remains eligible to apply for admission or employment at UA.

The timeframe coincides with the adoption of a federal rule under the administration of former President Donald Trump that was described by some as shoring up due process for the accused. The rule has been criticized by others who say it narrows civil-rights protections.

Changes to procedures after issuance of the Trump-era rule include allowing students to have advisers who can participate in live hearings by questioning opposing parties and witnesses.

President Joe Biden has ordered a review of the rule.

Laura Dunn, a victim's-rights attorney and advocate based in the Washington, D.C., area who is not involved in the case, said the settlement strategy in a case like that of "Doe" can involve such letters of the kind released in draft form by UA under the state's disclosure law.

"This type of letter allows the accused student to explain the Title IX finding if required to disclose it for a graduate school application or employment," Dunn said in an email.

Dunn said she is concerned when a student reporting an assault is not given an opportunity to intervene in such "John Doe" cases, adding that she is "proud of the survivor for speaking out."

"I am hopeful that the Biden Administration sees this story and elevates her voice as part of the needed Title IX reforms post-Trump," said Dunn.

Attorneys for "Doe," Heather Zachary and Justin Zachary, did not respond Monday to requests for comment.

Rushing, when asked why the university settled the case with "Doe," said "many factors" go into deciding to settle a lawsuit. He did not list them but said that "it should be emphasized that these decisions are always grounded in the best interest of the university community in substantial ways."

In 2019, U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III dismissed the lawsuit, but "Doe" appealed the ruling.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September revived the case, stating that there was a "plausible claim that the University discriminated against Doe on the basis of sex."

The appellate court, however, rejected arguments made by "Doe" that his due process rights were clearly violated. When it comes to the campus hearing involving "Doe," his lawsuit "does not identify any material flaw in this proceeding," the 8th Circuit opinion states.

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