Case Filed After DeVos Education Department Fails to Conclude Two-Year Investigation
The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF), Feminists United on Campus, a University of Mary Washington (UMW) student group affiliated with FMF, and five former UMW students have filed a federal lawsuit against UMW for its systemic failure to protect students from a sexually hostile school environment, sexual harassment, sex-based cyber assaults, and threats of physical and sexual violence, in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”), and U.S. Constitution’s right to Equal Protection.
The plaintiffs filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, two years after originally filing a complaint against UMW with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR). At the time of the filing, OCR had yet to issue any investigatory findings or recommendations in the case.
“It is outrageous that after two years, there has been no official response by OCR concerning this serious complaint,” said FMF President Eleanor Smeal. “Now, with Betsy DeVos at the helm of the Department of Education, the future of Title IX enforcement by OCR is even more uncertain. The students and the campus group, Feminists United, deserve justice. We had no choice but to go to federal court. Students must be protected from a sexually hostile environment, sexual harassment, sex-based cyber assaults, and threats of physical and sexual violence.”
“The university violated my clients’ rights under Title IX and the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of Equal Protection by failing to protect them from the nearly constant threats posted against them on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak,” said Debra Katz, founding partner of Katz, Marshall & Banks, LLP, who is representing the plaintiffs with her law partner, Lisa Banks, and Tim Schulte, founding partner at Richmond-based Shelley Cupp Schulte, P.C. “They were threatened with physical and sexual violence, including rape, and harassed with a barrage of over 700 violent and abusive sexist comments and slurs, yet UMW blatantly disregarded the severity of the threats and refused to act.”
“We feared for our safety and complained numerous times to President Hurley and university administrators,” said Julia Michels, former President of Feminists United, “but UMW repeatedly failed to investigate our reports and took no action to address either the threats made against us, or the pervasive rape culture at school that allowed this behavior to go unchecked. Even worse, when we tried to advocate for ourselves, President Hurley publicly retaliated against us, making us targets for yet another surge of online sex-based harassment.”
Only weeks after the plaintiffs filed their OCR complaint, then-president of UMW, Richard Hurley, sent to the media a letter to FMF President Eleanor Smeal belittling and denying the allegations in the complaint while disparaging FMF and Feminists United members.
Last month, Yik Yak’s developers announced they were shutting down the app, which had been under fire for enabling cyber-harassment and hate speech at colleges and universities across the nation.