The case of a former University of Missouri swimmer who said she was raped in an episode that her parents say led to her suicide underscores the problems higher education institutions in the U.S. face in cracking down on sexual assaults.
The parents of Sasha Menu Courey say the university and its athletics department by now should have investigated her alleged off-campus rape by as many as three football players in February 2010.
University leaders say they didn’t learn about the purported attack until after Menu Courey, a Canadian, committed suicide 16 months later. They also said they followed the letter of the law because they didn’t have specific knowledge of the attack and no victim to interview.
Schools nationwide are spending more time and money fighting campus rape in response to stricter federal enforcement of gender discrimination laws under Title IX. The White House has called it a public health epidemic, and President Barack Obama last week announced the formation of a new task force on college sex assault, citing statistics that show 1 in 5 female students are assaulted while in college, but only 1 in 8 victims report attacks.
But balancing the needs of individual students – including those who report attacks but don’t want a criminal investigation – with protecting the larger community is vexing for many schools.
Colleges and universities are also required to report campus crimes to the federal government under a 1990 law known as the Clery Act.
At least 50 schools have bolstered their efforts in recent years. Complaints of Title IX violations related to sexual violence are also increasing, a sign Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, attributes to new vigilance on campus.
“Obviously, there are all too many that still need prompting,” she said.
Earlier this week, Lhamon’s department announced an investigation of Penn State University’s handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints amid the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. The University of Colorado and California State University-Fresno have been ordered by civil courts to pay millions for Title IX violations asserted in victim lawsuits.
The University of Missouri’s efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus are extensive. A campus equity office led by a lawyer oversees compliance with Title IX, the federal law more commonly known for ensuring equal participation by women in college sports but also has broader discrimination protections. There also is counseling and help available through the campus women’s center and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center.
Students who eschew legal intervention can still seek a campus disciplinary hearing. And the university can also help students switch dorms or class schedules or bar contact outright.
Menu Courey, 20, killed herself in June 2011 in a Boston psychiatric hospital soon after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and two months after an earlier suicide attempt.
“There are many resources out there, but there’s not really any (sense) that she was provided with those resources,” said Zachary Wilson, development director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “It’s difficult for sexual assault survivors to go at it alone.”
Missouri didn’t immediately investigate the death of Menu Courey, who by then had withdrawn from classes at the university’s urging and lost her financial aid. The school said in a statement Tuesday that a 2012 Columbia Daily Tribune article about Menu Courey’s suicide briefly alluded to the alleged assault, but didn’t meet the legal standard that the school “reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment.”
The school says Menu Courey’s parents ignored its request for more information a year ago after it discovered an online chat transcript with a campus rape counselor in which Menu Courey mentioned an earlier attack.
Missouri initially responded to an ESPN story about the swimmer by defending its handling of the case while criticizing the news organization’s “skewed and flawed reporting.” But soon after, the university said it was turning over information on the case to Columbia police, since the alleged attack happened off-campus.
A police investigation is underway, and University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe wants the university’s governing board to pay for an independent legal review of how officials handled the situation. The Board of Curators is expected to consider that request at its regular meeting on Wednesday.
Other sexual assault cases have been linked to Missouri’s athletic department. Former running back Derrick Washington was convicted in 2010 of sexually assaulting a tutor in her sleep, and basketball player Michael Dixon transferred in 2012 after two sex assault claims against him went public, though he was never charged.
In suburban Toronto, Mike Menu and his wife Lynn Courey have channeled their grief into a mental health foundation named in her memory. They want accountability from Missouri, though Menu said the couple hasn’t hired an attorney and isn’t “looking for money.”
“We just want to make sure that changes are made,” Mike Menu said. “We need more than Band-Aids. We need a transformation.”