Students File Lawsuit Against Brown University, Allege Administration “Repeatedly Downplayed or Dismissed” Sexual Misconduct Complaints

“The school’s indifference and the impunity afforded their attackers compromises the women’s education, entrenches a code of silence around sexual assault, and reinforces humiliation and psychological stress, making their campus a hostile place,” said co-counsel Kim Evans.

Updated on August 17, 2021, at 8:00 a.m. PT.

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Brown University’s Main Green in 1990. The school is facing a class-action lawsuit by four current and former students who say it failed to protect them from harm “despite knowledge that sexual assault on its campus is endemic.” (Will Hart / Flickr)

In the fall of 1990, Brown University students were frustrated and angry by the administration’s paltry response to reports of sexual assault. So they took matters into their own hands.

According to a New York Times story at the time, the Brown University library “became a repository for information of a most unusual kind: on its bathroom walls women made a list of the male students who the women said had raped them. Repeatedly scrubbed from the bathrooms by janitors only to reappear, the list of names has grown in recent weeks to as many as 30 and has appeared in several other bathrooms on campus.”

Over 30 years later, Brown once again finds itself the subject of searing criticism for its alleged failure to address sexual assault on campus. But this time, the university faces a class-action lawsuit by four current and former students—all survivors of campus sexual harassment and assault—who claim the school failed to protect them from harm “despite knowledge that sexual assault on its campus is endemic.”
 
The case, filed in federal court in Rhode Island on August 6, alleges that Brown officials repeatedly downplayed or dismissed complaints of sexual misconduct—including stalking, harassment and assault—in violation of federal Title IX rules, Rhode Island civil rights law and Brown’s own code of conduct.

“Survivors at Brown are silenced, harmed, dismissed and discouraged from seeking justice by the university,” said the four plaintiffs—Carter Woodruff, Chloe Burns, Taja Hirata-Epstein, and Katiana Soenen. “The so-called systems of justice and support at Brown, as well as the faculty, staff and administrators who implement them, actively perpetuate and exacerbate the injustices and harm they claim to remedy.”

The four women plaintiffs are two recent graduates and two current students. They are jointly represented by the law firms of Grant & Eisenhofer and Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky. The suit seeks to represent all woman who attended Brown since 2018, who experienced sexual violence and then were “further traumatized by the university’s mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints.”

“These courageous women have brought this action expressly to hold Brown University to account for tolerating sexual misconduct—however, based on our extensive pre-suit investigation, we believe many more sexual violence survivors at Brown will follow,” said trial attorney Elizabeth Bailey of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky. 

The complaint describes sexual misconduct as “endemic” on Brown’s campus. In 2019, as part of a national survey, the American Association of Universities surveyed 3,100 Brown students about their concerns regarding university sexual assault and misconduct issues. One quarter of undergraduate women reported receiving nonconsensual sexual contact while at Brown. Nearly half—48.2 percent—of all students reported experiencing at least one type of offensive or inappropriate behavior of a sexual nature. Over 76 percent of the perpetrators were current Brown students. And more than one in five students—22.1 percent—believed that sexual misconduct was very or extremely problematic on Brown’s campus.

“Our clients are taking this necessary step, convinced that, given its previous decades of inaction, Brown will simply continue to act like it’s the 18th century and perpetuate its non-compliant, haphazard and ineffective internal grievance process,” said Bailey. “We hope this action is a call for other women who have endured similar abuse and subsequent mistreatment by college administrators to step forward and hold accountable all those responsible.”

The lawsuit alleges the university “failed and continues to fail” to protect women, “creating a campus culture that ignores and even tacitly allows trauma to be inflicted on women.” According to the complaint, “Brown set up a system that dissuades and actively thwarts reporting of sexual assault and misconduct on campus despite its knowledge of a pervasive and ongoing problem.”

The plaintiffs allege that “Brown employees…discouraged or even overtly prevented the proper reporting of sexual assault and abuse allegations.” When students were able to file complaints, they were “ignored or inadequately investigated or addressed, effectively ratifying the abusive acts committed against” the plaintiffs, they say.

The complaint notes that the university regularly reports significantly more “incidents” than formal complaints or findings of responsibility. For example, during the 2019-2020 academic year, 103 incidents were reported but only nine formal complaints were filed and only five findings of responsibility—less than 5 percent of reported incidents.

The plaintiffs also allege that the university “routinely engaged in retaliatory conduct against students who publicly discussed their experiences, publicly raised complaints about Brown, and/or engaged in publicly-organized protests against Brown’s failures.”

Woodruff, Burns, Hirata-Epstein and Soenen said that despite “numerous student uprisings led by survivors and their allies … the university has never responded to these pleas for justice with anything but begrudging, minor changes to policy and procedure.”

In June of 2020, students created an Instagram account Voices of Brown, where they shared their stories of sexual assault and their experiences in reporting the assaults to Brown. By February of 2021, after over 100 survivors had reported their experiences, students created another Instagram account—End Sexual Violence at Brown, where students posted an open letter “denouncing the Brown administration and recounting a decades-long history of institutional survivor-silencing and suppression of student activism.” Students then plastered the campus with posters reading “End Sexual Violence @ Brown” and “End the Silence, End the Violence.”

On April 7, students held an in-person, outdoor, COVID-safe protest. They marched to the Brown president’s house and presented a list of demands. Later they organized an email campaign demanding action. “Brown administrators never responded to the actions…directly,” says the complaint, and “only begrudgingly agreed to meet” with student leaders, which resulted in “no material changes to Brown’s policies or conduct.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a permanent injunction to ensure strict compliance with Title IX provisions.

“For Brown University, an Ivy League school and one of the country’s elite liberal arts institutions, to fail students who have suffered physical trauma and are in need of extra care and compassion, it is appalling,” said co-counsel Kim Evans of Grant & Eisenhofer.
 
“Not only are these young women left unsupported at an especially vulnerable time, but the school’s indifference and the impunity afforded their attackers compromises the women’s education, entrenches a code of silence around sexual assault, and reinforces humiliation and psychological stress, making their campus a hostile place.”

Brown University did not respond to a request from Ms. for comment on the lawsuit by the time of going to press.

“We hope our lawsuit will bring justice to the countless survivors who have suffered at the hands of the university,” said Woodruff, Burns, Hirata-Epstein, and Soenen.

Resources are available to assist sexual assault survivors from the National Sexual Assault Hotline operated by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network). To speak confidentially to a trained staff member from a local sexual assault service provider call 800-656-HOPE or visit https://hotline.rainn.org/online.

August 15 update: After the article was posted, Brown University’s Senior Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt sent the following response: “We understand that it can be very difficult for students who were not at the University in 2014 when Brown began its aggressive actions to confront sexual violence to fully see the progress that reflects the University’s serious commitment to these issues. Among many other actions, Brown created a Title IX and Gender Equity Office, implemented a unified policy on sexual and gender based violence, trained students, faculty and staff across campus, required education for first-year students, launched and supported peer education programs and advocated on federal policy. University leaders also played a lead role in initiating the landmark national effort to survey students about experiences and perspectives on sexual assault and misconduct. Our record of action reflects a true commitment to confronting this critical societal issue. We take it very seriously.”

August 17 update: In response to the statement from Brown, attorneys for Brown University plaintiffs Elizabeth Bailey and Kim Evans stated: “The Brown sexual assault survivors/plaintiffs and their legal team stand by all claims asserted in the complaint and look forward to a jury trial in federal court on the facts, and, ultimately, justice. The purported upgraded policies and resources that Brown now references are of no comfort to Brown survivors, who endured serial assault and other misconduct, and then faced inaction and neglect by school administrators when they reported what had taken place, all of which occurred after these changes supposedly took effect. That is exactly why they’ve turned to the courts seeking to compel Brown’s strict and sustainable compliance with all provisions of Title IX. That Brown believes survivors should give thanks that conditions aren’t as bad as they were prior to 2014 is insulting, ignores the reality of what is still happening on campus and reinforces the need to hold the university accountable for its failures to protect women from sexual abuse.”

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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the Sylvia Dlugasch Bauman Chair of American Studies and a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. She is a contributing editor at Ms. magazine. You can contact Dr. Baker at cbaker@msmagazine.com or follow her on Twitter @CarrieNBaker.