Lawsuits seek changes to University of Iowa sexual assault policies
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The law firm that won a landmark gender discrimination case against the University of Iowa athletics department will challenge what it calls the school’s biased handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints next.
Des Moines-based Newkirk Zwagerman filed two lawsuits Monday seeking changes to how the school responds when female students report assault and harassment, arguing that a culture of “victim blaming, implicit gender bias and gender stereotypes” hinders how cases are investigated and resolved.
The lawsuits highlight an issue that has put universities on the defensive nationwide over their practices, including how they balance the rights of the accuser and the accused.
In one University of Iowa case, a graduate student claims school officials treated her harshly after she reported being sexually assaulted while improperly reducing sanctions against her perpetrator to avoid ruining his career in political science. In the second, a student activist claims the university failed to reprimand its now-retired assistant public safety director for allegedly making lewd gestures toward her after a campus protest, an allegation he denied.
The cases argue the school is failing to “deliver on its legal and moral obligation” to protect students from assault and harassment and the emotional backlash that occurs after such incidents. They seek orders requiring the university to make several changes, including surveying students about its handling of complaints, analyzing investigations and decisions to monitor for bias, and boosting training on gender-based violence.
University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck declined comment Monday.
In May, Iowa agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle discrimination lawsuits brought by former athletics administrator Jane Meyer and her partner, former women’s field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum. The payment included $2.68 million for Newkirk Zwagerman, which represented both women. A jury ruled that Iowa discriminated against Meyer based on her gender and sexual orientation, retaliated against her and paid her less than a male counterpart. The firm raised issues of implicit bias and gender stereotypes in those cases, and the university has launched reviews of its employment practices.
The new lawsuits recount Iowa’s struggles to confront sexual assault during the last decade, starting with a 2007 case in which two football players took turns assaulting an intoxicated female athlete. Two administrators were blamed for mishandling that investigation and fired by then-UI President Sally Mason, who promised changes.
Mason caused protests in 2014 after she told an interviewer that sexual assault probably couldn’t be eliminated because of “human nature.” Amid the ensuing outcry, Mason launched a widely-praised plan to crack down on offenders, increase support for survivors and better train employees.
But the lawsuits argue Iowa’s response remains inadequate because the changes didn’t address biases that can lead to institutional hostility against female accusers and support for perpetrators.
A graduate student in political science alleges university officials pressured her to withdraw from classes or risk failing when she struggled after reporting that a department colleague sexually assaulted her at his home. Her lawsuit claims the university initially decided to suspend her assailant until she graduated, but the graduate school dean later reduced the punishment to a one-year suspension to allow him to graduate.
When her assailant returned in 2014, the lawsuit claims the university made accommodations so he could go to the political science building and that his presence disrupted her work. She eventually reported the assaults to police, and he was convicted of aggravated misdemeanor charges.
The second lawsuit claims the university botched its investigation into claims that then-assistant public safety director put his hands in his pockets and made lewd gestures toward a graduate student following a 2015 protest.
The student claimed that he made the gestures after she accused him of being condescending toward her during the event because “he doesn’t like women.” A university investigation was inconclusive on whether the gestures were made but said even as described they wouldn’t amount to sexual harassment.