Peyton Manning’s name has been in the news recently for reasons other than his football team’s Super Bowl win. You may have heard about a recent lawsuit filed against the University of Tennessee for allegedly creating a campus culture that tolerated sexual violence, specifically violence committed by male athletes against female students. The lawsuit includes allegations that the school has a history of sexual harassment and assault dating back to the mid-1990s and references an incident from that time involving Manning, who was the quarterback of the Tennessee football team. The lawsuit comes at a time when sexual harassment and violence on college campuses has received heightened attention nationally, with President Obama launching the “It’s On Us” campaign in 2014 to end sexual assault on campuses.
In today’s blog post, we’ll talk about the allegations in the lawsuit against the University of Tennessee as well as the legal grounds that can be used to hold colleges accountable for systemic issues that contribute to and enable sexual harassment and assault on their campuses.
Title IX Claims Against The University of Tennessee
A group of six female former students of the University of Tennessee filed the case against the university in federal court last month. Two more former students have since joined the lawsuit. The primary basis for their lawsuit is that the university violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”) by creating a hostile environment that allowed for multiple sexual assaults to occur and were indifferent and unreasonable in responding to sexual assault claims by victims.
What is Title IX?
Title IX is a federal law that was enacted in 1972 to prohibit sex discrimination in education. The law applies to any educational program that receives federal funding, from elementary schools to colleges. The impact of the law has been far reaching. It has famously opened the doors to equal participation in sports for girls and women, allowed for women to have equal access to college and graduate school programs, and required schools to provide equal treatment of students who are pregnant or parenting. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment against students as part of the overall prohibition on sex discrimination.
Sexual harassment of a student under Title IX is very similar to sexual harassment of an employee, which we’ve discussed in prior blog posts. Under Title IX, sexual harassment consists of unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile environment by interfering with the victim’s ability to participate in school activities. The hostile environment concept is like the hostile work environment we’ve talked about in prior posts regarding workplace sexual harassment. In the context of Title IX, though, a school can be held liable for damages only if it has notice of the harassing activity and responds with deliberate indifference.
The former University of Tennessee students claim that the University of Tennessee violated Title IX because it knew of and acted with deliberate indifference to acts of sexual harassment of its students. To set the background for the incidents of rape that the former students allegedly endured, they described a history of harassment at the school going back more than a decade.
Among the historical incidents cited was a 1996 incident involving Peyton Manning in which the former Tennessee quarterback allegedly placed his rectum and testicles on a trainer’s face while the trainer examined his foot. The incident was settled out of court, and Manning, for his part, denies the allegations. Yet, the incident has been raised 20 years later as just one of many examples of sexual assault and harassment that male athletes at the University of Tennessee have allegedly engaged in over that time.
Seven of the eight unnamed former students in the case claim to have been sexually assaulted or raped in separate incidents, primarily by male athletes at the school, and the eighth student claims to have been retaliated against because of her friendship with one of the alleged victims. The students allege that the university, including its chancellor, athletics director and head football coach, had actual notice of the long history of sexual harassment and violence on its campus and its indifference to those past incidents created an environment that enabled continued acts of harassment and violence, like those endured by the plaintiffs. The students also allege that the university had a disciplinary process that favored the athletes charged with rape and that the university actively stepped in to delay some proceedings, allowing the accused students in those cases to transfer or graduate before facing discipline.
The former students seek damages including reimbursement for tuition, pain and suffering, and other expenses the plaintiffs incurred as a result of the alleged sexual assaults. They also seek injunctive relief that would, among other things, require the university to institute a comprehensive sexual harassment policy and change its disciplinary process in sexual assault cases.
The University of Tennessee’s Response
The University of Tennessee has not yet filed a formal response with the court, but it has released a public statement regarding the allegations through its legal counsel. In the statement, the school defends its process for investigating and resolving sexual assault complaints and claims it “has devoted significant time and energy to provide a safe environment for our students, to educate and raise awareness about sexual assault, and to encourage students to come forward and report sexual assault.“ All 16 of the university’s head coaches for both men’s and women’s teams have also come forward to praise the environment at their school, without addressing the specifics of the Title IX lawsuit.
Incidents on Other Campuses
As the University of Tennessee noted in its public statement, it is one of many college campuses facing the challenge of sexual assault. A recent survey conducted by the Association of American Universities across 27 university campuses revealed 23% of female respondents had experienced some form of unwanted sexual contact while they’d been enrolled in school. The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment is clearly not confined to Knoxville, Tennessee. Where schools have contributed to this problem by turning the other way or favoring a particular group of students, like athletes, in sexual harassment and assault claims, Title IX can be the tool to hold those schools accountable. Likewise, in states like New York, there may be state and local laws that can provide students with additional protection from sexual harassment and discrimination. New York State and New York City each hav
e a Human Rights Law that prohibits sex discrimination in places of “public accommodation,” which can include schools.
If you’ve been the victim of sexual harassment or assault as a student or an employee, we encourage you to report the incident to your school or employer and contact an attorney to discuss your case. Eisenberg & Baum’s attorneys have decades of experience handling sexual harassment cases in New York and can help you understand the merits of your claim and advise you on your next steps. We offer free initial consultations for sexual harassment claims and bill on a contingent fee basis, so you won’t have to pay us unless we win or settle your case.