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Jury finds Purdue University guilty of retaliating against student who came forward with assault allegations

 Purdue University was found guilty of retaliating against a student who came forward with allegations of assault (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)
Purdue University was found guilty of retaliating against a student who came forward with allegations of assault (WBAA News/Ben Thorp)

A jury found Friday that Purdue University violated due process and treated a student differently because she was a woman after she came forward with assault allegations against a fraternity member.

Nancy Roe (not her real name) was one of two students who filed suit against the school in 2018, alleging they were expelled after making complaints to Purdue about their respective assaults. Both expulsions were turned into suspensions after Nancy Roe and the second student, Mary Doe, appealed.

The initial complaint argued that Purdue had a policy “written or unwritten” that if women could not prove their claims to the satisfaction of university decision-makers, they faced “discipline or expulsion.”

“Purdue’s conduct violated Title IX,” that initial complaint read. “Its investigation was slipshod; the investigators made discriminatory assumptions about each Plaintiff’s behavior; and the University departed from basic norms of fairness.”

Alyssa Rollock, Vice-President for Ethics and Compliance at Purdue, and Katie Sermersheim, Associate Provost and Dean of Students at Purdue, were both named in the lawsuit.

Doe settled with the school in August, just before the trial began.

Purdue has argued Roe made false statements about her assault, which opened her up to disciplinary action. Purdue further argued that the false statement rule applies to all persons, regardless of gender, meaning Roe’s claims do not qualify under Title IX.

In court, Purdue’s attorney played a nine-minute clip recorded by Roe’s alleged assaulter. Roe’s attorney said she was too incapacitated to consent to either sex or the recording.

Roe’s attorney also wrote that Purdue’s use of the recording showed “decision-makers determined that a girl who sounds like Plaintiff did on the tape, by definition, could not be raped - regardless of whether she remembered it. That is discriminatory.”

On Friday, the jury found that the university treated Roe differently in investigating the complaint of assault because she was a woman and retaliated against her after she came forward with assault allegations.

The jury also found that Purdue’s Dean of Students and Vice President for Ethics and Compliance failed to provide adequate notice to Roe that there was an investigation against her - depriving Roe of an opportunity to be heard.

And finally, the jury found that the conduct of Purdue’s Dean of Students and Vice President for Ethics and Compliance was “malicious or in reckless disregard” of Roe’s rights.

As part of the judgment, Purdue will pay Roe $10,000.

In a statement released Saturday morning, Purdue spokesperson Tim Doty said the university “could not disagree more” with the jury’s findings.

“Purdue maintains an unwavering commitment to Title IX and is confident in its policies and procedures for investigating and adjudicating these difficult cases,” Doty wrote.

The statement also underlined that while the jury ruled against Purdue administrators Alyssa Rollock and Katie Sermersheim, they did not conclude that Roe deserved “any compensation for those findings.”

“Purdue stands fully in support of Dr. Sermersheim and Ms. Rollock for their professionalism, diligence, integrity, and commitment to fairness in this and all such matters,” Doty concluded.

The attorney for Roe did not respond to a request for comment.

On campus, the president of MeToo Purdue, Charlotte Russell, said the case was disheartening and upsetting.

“This trial is horrifying and surprising but at the same time I’m not completely shocked,” she said. “It’s kind of like ‘oh well of course’, which is never a reaction you want to have when it comes to an administration that is pledging to protect its students and look out for the best of their well-being. That’s what we want to bring focus to here. I think I’m not the only one having that reaction.”

Last year, MeToo Purdue staged a number of marches and sit-ins on the university campus urging Purdue to take a stronger stance against campus sexual assault. That included efforts to make it easier for people to come forward to report accusations of sexual assaults.

As part of that work, Russell said her group met with Purdue’s Dean of Students, Katie Sermersheim, to discuss things the university could do to improve.

“We’ve been very frustrated because we haven’t seen anything, we feel like it’s very much just kind of meaningless at this point, just empty statements and I think the result of this case and this scenario unfortunately really affirms that,” she said.

Ultimately, Russell said, the case may have a silver lining in underlining problems with Purdue’s campus culture.

“This gives us some evidence and some leverage,” she said. “Hopefully people will see what we’re talking about.”

MeToo Purdue plans to hold another protest on campus related to the trial next week.

This story has been updated to include a response from both Purdue University and MeToo Purdue.

Copyright 2022 WBAA News. To see more, visit WBAA News.

Benjamin Thorp