U. of Colorado at Boulder Settles Lawsuit Over Alleged Rapes at Football Recruiting Party for $2.85 Million
By LIBBY SANDER
Officials at the University of Colorado at Boulder have reached a settlement with two women who claimed to have been gang raped by football players and high-school recruits at a party in 2001.
The settlement, announced on Wednesday by Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado system, brings to an end a long-running scandal that cost several top university officials their jobs and called into question a university practice of showing prospective football players a "good time" as a federal appeals court dubbed it in a recent court ruling during their visits to the campus.
Under the terms of the settlement, one of the women, Lisa Simpson, will receive $2.5-million; the other, Anne Gilmore, will receive $350,000. Both were students at the university at the time of the alleged rapes.
The agreement also calls for the creation of a new Title IX-adviser position to help the university prevent sexual harassment and misconduct, and for adding another part-time counselor to the university's Office of Victim Assistance.
Kimberly M. Hult, an attorney for Ms. Simpson, said the nonmonetary terms of the settlement were "not very common" and that Ms. Simpson, who is now 26, was "delighted" with the steps the university has already taken to change its policies for recruiting visits.
"This case was always about trying to effect change," Ms. Hult said. "Lisa's goal was to do everything she could to make sure that changes were made."
University administrators said on Wednesday that the policies allowing the raucous behavior that led to the rape allegations, including the alcohol and drugs provided to the visiting recruits by their player-hosts, were things of the past.
"The university is ready to close this chapter in its history and move forward," said Ken McConnellogue, associate vice president for university relations. "We're in an entirely different place than when this first came up. We have new people in 11 of our top 12 leadership positions, and we've enacted a series of reforms in our intercollegiate athletic programs and in our student services."
Jocelyn Samuels, an attorney with the National Women's Law Center, which served as "of counsel" to Ms. Simpson and Ms. Gilmore during the litigation, praised the university's turnaround.
But, she said, the settlement should be seen as "a wake-up call" for other universities.
"The facts of this particular case were egregious," she said. "But ultimately what I think is most relevant for other universities is to recognize that the law means what it says. They have a legal obligation to ensure the safety of their students."
Ms. Simpson and Ms. Gilmore filed separate lawsuits in 2002 and 2003, respectively, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law that governs sex discrimination and gender equity in education. (The cases were later consolidated.)
In their lawsuit, the two women claimed university and athletics officials knew female students were at risk of sexual harassment or assault by football players or recruits but did nothing to correct it.
In 2005 a federal judge in Denver dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the women did not have a claim under Title IX. They failed to prove, the court said, that university officials had known about previous similar incidents and deliberately ignored them.
Ms. Simpson and Ms. Gilmore appealed, and in September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled in their favor, reversing the lower court's decision and reinstating the case. A trial date had been set for January 2009.
In the 10th Circuit's ruling, a panel of three judges unanimously concluded that the university "had an official policy of showing high-school football recruits a 'good time' on their visits to the CU campus," and that the alleged assaults were caused by the university's lack of supervision over the players who served as hosts. This lack of supervision, the court went on, was the result of "deliberate indifference."
But university officials had no justification for their indifference, the court noted: In 1997, a high-school girl said she had been assaulted by football recruits at a party held by a Colorado player.
"Not only was coaching staff informed of sexual harassment and assault by players, but it responded in ways that were more likely to encourage than eliminate such misconduct," the opinion stated.
A lawyer for the university, Larry Pozner, said at the time of the 10th Circuit's ruling that it held universities to an impossible standard for supervising their students.
"The life of every university would change under this new legal standard," Mr. Pozner said. "What it means is that all universities are now charged with monitoring student activities, on and off campus, official and unofficial, to a degree that we have not seen before."
But Mr. McConnellogue, the university spokesman, said on Wednesday that the 10th Circuit's opinion "hastened" discussions of a settlement among leaders of a campus eager to move on.
A Cautionary Tale
As the lawsuit made its way through court, fallout from the case was only beginning on the Boulder campus.
In February 2004, Gary Barnett, the football coach, was suspended with pay after making disparaging comments about Katie Hnida, a former placekicker for the Buffaloes who had complained of being raped in 1999 by a Colorado player.
Three months later, in May 2004, an investigative panel convened by the university's Board of Regents blasted university officials for failing to monitor the recruiting process or exercise enough oversight over the athletics program as a whole. While there was no evidence that athletics officials had knowingly approved of using sex and alcohol to lure recruits, the panel did find that administrators and coaches did not explain recruiting rules and appropriate standards of behavior to the players in charge of acting as hosts to the high-school recruits.
A second investigation, conducted by the Colorado Attorney General's office, looked into the criminal allegations of the case, but the authorities declined to file assault charges against the players or the recruits accused of the attacks.
Then, in September 2004, the Rocky Mountain News reported that a grand jury had called the university's Board of Regents "unqualified" to supervise the football program. The university's athletic director at the time, Richard Tharp, and the football coach, Mr. Barnett, had created a culture that fostered inappropriate and potentially criminal behavior by athletes and recruits, according to the News's account of the grand-jury report.
Three months later, Mr. Tharp quit. Barely three months after that, in early March 2005, the university's president, Elizabeth Hoffman, announced she would resign, amid criticism for failing to fire the football coach and in the wake of widespread outrage over a professor's comparison of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks to a Nazi leader (The Chronicle, March 18, 2005).
And then, in December 2005, after reaching a financial settlement of $3 million with the university, Mr. Barnett, the football coach, stepped down.
Copyright © 2007 by The Chronicle of Higher Education