Last month, a female track athlete named University of Michigan school officials and her track coach in a federal lawsuit, claiming they failed to protect her from contact with another student who had previously been disciplined for sexual misconduct under Title IX provisions.
As ESPN reports, the original dispute dated back to May 2017, when athlete Kellen Smith first reported to the school's Title IX office that her male teammate, Blake Washington, had touched her inappropriately without her consent in April 2017. She also reported the incident to the police in August 2017. According to reports, Smith was asleep at the time of the alleged contact and discovered she had been violated through a series of text messages Washington had sent describing the incident after the fact. (Washington maintains the contact was consensual.)
Although prosecutors ultimately declined to charge Washington due to Smith having no direct recollection of the event, the university found Washington responsible for sexual misconduct in January of 2018 and issued a no-contact directive. It is this directive Smith alleges the school failed to enforce.
In the federal lawsuit, Smith specifically names her coach James Henry for failures to keep Washington away from her, alleging instead that Henry claimed she should be “flattered” by Washington's interest in her and that she "could always quit the team if she wanted to avoid being around Mr. Washington." Smith also cites that the stress generated by these failures resulted in dropping grades, missed practices, and ultimately losing her spot on the track team.
Implications and Takeaways
This lawsuit, and more importantly the allegations and backstory behind it, offer some important teaching points about how schools and the courts are interpreting Title IX provisions. In particular, let's look at three of the most important takeaways.
· The male athlete was cited for sexual misconduct by the school even though prosecutors couldn't derive enough evidence for a criminal charge. In essence, the initial alleged incident was basically her word against his as to whether the event was consensual, with little backing evidence to support either point. The state found insufficient evidence to prosecute; the school found the accused in violation almost solely on the word of the accuser. This underscores the fact that schools don't always follow the same standards of due process as the courts, especially under the threat of Title IX.
· The new lawsuit brings up important questions about who is responsible for Title IX enforcement. Specifically: does a school's no-contact directive carry the same weight of legal authority as, say, a restraining order? Can school officials, especially teachers or coaches in direct contact with a student, be held liable if another student breaks a no-contact rule? The findings of this case will attempt to answer these questions, and it could have significant implications for how Title IX is enforced in the future.
· Accusations of Title IX violations can have severe repercussions for the accused, even with limited evidence. Considering the male athlete may genuinely have seen the contact as consensual, a single allegation has already created three years of stigma for that student, with no end in sight.
If anything, this case serves as a cautionary tale that even an allegation of wrongdoing under Title IX could have lasting implications for the future. If you have been wrongly accused, the help of an attorney-advisor can provide much-needed protection in school disciplinary proceedings. Call attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 for a case evaluation, or reach out to us online.