BANNER ELK — Lees-McRae College, along with four employees of the college, have been named as defendants in a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges a “deliberately indifferent response to a student-on-student sexual misconduct complaint that occurred on school premises and subsequent sex-based harassment, retaliation and intimidation.”
Lees-McRae Dean of Students Jon Driggers, Title IX coordinator and director of compliance, and Jeffrey Merrill, Assistant Dean of Students Josh Gaisser and adjunct instructor Andrew Taylor are the named defendants.
The Ashe Post and Times does not name alleged victims of sexual harassment or asault.
“Lees-McRae College cannot comment on the specifics of a matter in litigation. Lees-McRae is a student-centered institution and the welfare and well-being of students is at the center of everything they do,” Lees-McCrae’s attorney, Raleigh-based Katie Hartzog, said in an email to the Ashe Post and Times. “Lees-McRae College endeavors to treat every concern with care and attention, considering all points of view in any dispute between students in a fair manner. Lees-McRae regrets any occasion in which a student feels unsatisfied with an outcome.”
As part of the suit, the victim is seeking the following:
- “Compensatory damages for Plaintiff’s psychological and emotional distress and damages, loss of standing in her community, damage to her reputation, and her family’s out of pocket expenses incurred in response to these circumstances, her loss of tuition, costs of future education and rehabilitation. These damages arise under Title IX claims.”
- The victim seeks “injunctive relief” requiring Lees-McRae to take effective steps to prevent sex-based discrimination and harassment in its education programs and to “fully investigate” and “appropriately respond” to conduct that may constitute sex-based harassment and or sexual assault.
- The victim also seeks interest on the damages awarded, punitive damages, costs and reasonable attorney fees.
- The victim requests that “all issues complained of herein” be heard and tried by a jury.
Asheville based attorney Stephen P. Lindsey and Durham based attorney Kerstin W. Sutton represent the victim and the victim’s mother in the lawsuit. Lindsey, who declined to comment on the specifics of the case, said that they are “anxious to have our day in court.”
“We feel like a lot will come out and we are looking forward to it,” Lindsey said.
A court date has not been set at this time, with the college being served with the lawsuit on Wednesday, March 7.
The lawsuit claims that prior to the alleged misconduct, the victim suffered from previously diagnosed social anxiety and was provided with “special housing and access to the school therapist.” The lawsuit states that this information was “known by one or more of the individual defendants.”
The first incident of the alleged misconduct occurred on April 11, 2017, at approximately 1 a.m. According to the lawsuit, the victim walked from an “E-Sports” event located in the Chaffee building to the nearby Theater Arts Building so that she could find an available restroom.
En route to the Theater Arts Building, the defendant encountered a fellow student, referred to by the lawsuit only as “MR,” as well as a few other males. The lawsuit claims that “MR” was a prominent athlete on the LMC basketball team.
Upon encountering “MR,” the lawsuit claims that the victim was “verbally accosted in a sexual manner.” The victim then entered the women’s restroom and locked the door, “fearful for her safety.”
“MR” and the other students followed the victim into the building and allegedly yelled profanities and made sexually suggestive comments.
According to the lawsuit, the victim remained in the bathroom for the next 15-20 minutes, contacting her boyfriend who came to help her.
According to the lawsuit, the victim initially reported the incidents to Gassier, with campus security and the Banner Elk Police Department responding to the incident. “MR” was interviewed by campus security and Gassier, with the victim being told that “everything was taken care of.”
On April 17, 2018, the victim and her mother filed a Title IX complaint against “MR.” As a result of the complaint, the school issued a no-contact order preventing “MR” and the other men involved from directly or indirectly having any contact with the victim, according to the lawsuit.
Following the no-contact order, on April 19, 2017, the victim was “having lunch in the cafeteria when ‘MR’ and others entered the cafeteria ... and intentionally sat down close to her in violation of the no-contact order,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges further violation of the no-contact order by “MR,” stating: “later that day while at dinner with her boyfriend in the cafeteria, ‘MR’ and others again came in and sat in close proximity to (the victim). This was again a violation of the no-contact order. (The victim) and her boyfriend moved away from ‘MR’ and the others. In response, ‘MR’ and others got up and moved to where (the victim) and her boyfriend has relocated. Later that evening ‘MR’ and others followed (the victim) across campus to the E-Sports program location — a third violation of the no-contact order.”
According to the lawsuit, the victim notified Merrill and Driggers of the alleged violations the following morning, April 20, 2017. The lawsuit claims that school administrators “failed to take any meaningful steps to provide protection or support to (the victim) or to prevent ‘MR’ and others from continuing to intimidate, harassing and/or otherwise retaliate against (the victim) — actions required by the policies of the Defendant College and the Title IX regulations in place at that time.”
With the alleged inaction by the university, the victim is claimed to have suffered a “full-blown psychological breakdown” and that she “isolated herself in her dorm room in fear that she was going to be further harmed.” The lawsuit also claims that the victim slept under her bed during this time.
The victim obtained a Domestic Violence Protective Order from the “local courthouse” preventing “MR” from having any contact with her on April 21, 2017, as was advised by her mother, according to the lawsuit.
On April 24, 2017, “MR” and others again violated the no-contact orders, according to the lawsuit, by following the victim around the cafeteria again. It is also alleged that “MR” wrote “It’s me — guess who” on a whiteboard, which the victim saw. Again the victim is claimed to have reported the incidents to Driggers, who allegedly “did nothing in response.”
A Title IX hearing was to take place on April 25, 2017, regarding the harassment, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit claims the following about the hearing: “(The victim) was not provided with any guidance or support in preparation for said hearing. The location for the hearing was selected by the Defendant Driggers and was an inadequate, small conference room ... there as no divider to protect (the victim) from being confronted by ‘MR’ or the others. Participants were forced to sit in close proximity to one another.”
The lawsuit also claims that during the hearing, a “large number of students” had been provided with knowledge that the “private and confidential hearing” was taking place and were permitted to “gather in the hallway immediately outside of the hearing room.” The students assembled to “support ‘MR’ and were “loud and aggressive,” possessing a “mob mentality attitude that was intimidating to the victim.”
During the hearing, the lawsuit claims that “MR’s” mother, who was allowed to attend, “loudly and aggressively” confronted the victim, despite “established rules” prohibiting her from talking or addressing panel members and participants.
According to the lawsuit, Andrew Taylor, a named defendant and member of the panel for the hearing, made “patently offensive, sexual and inappropriate statements loud enough for (the victim) and her mother to hear.” According to the lawsuit, Taylor is alleged to have said “all I need for a good weekend is liquor and loose women.”
The panel ultimately found “MR” and the others “not responsible” for violating the sexual harassment policy. According to the lawsuit, one of the reasons the panel reached the “not responsible” decision was due to an “improper fear” of “racial repercussions should they find “MR” who is African-American ‘responsible’ for sexually harassing, intimidating and/or retaliating against (the victim) who is white.”
Following the hearing the victim left the college, withdrawing from her classes, according to the lawsuit. The victim later appealed the decision, with the panel overturning the decision and ordering a “new hearing,” although a hearing has not yet been scheduled or conducted, according to the lawsuit.
According to the lawsuit, on June 27, 2017, the victim attempted to take her own life as a result of the alleged misconduct and the following events.
Per the lawsuit, on November 14, 2017, the victim and her family filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, alleging that Lees-McRae failed to “promptly and appropriately respond to the alleged sexual harassment, intimidation and/or retaliation resulting in a student, on the basis of sex, being excluded from participation in, being denied the benefits of, or being subjected to discrimination in any district education programs or activities in violation of the Title IX implementing regulation at 34 C.F.R. § 106.31.” The matter is currently pending with the OCR.