University accused of keeping rapist in classes with his victim, silencing professors who objected

Texas Tech freshman Regan Elder helps drape a bed sheet with the message " No means No," over the university's seal on the Lubbock campus on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014. (AP Photo/Betsy Blaney)

With the national conversation around workplace sexual harassment and assault reaching a fever pitch, it’s easy to forget that the conversation about sexual violence on college campuses has been going on for years, spurred forward by students across the country who accuse school administrators of violating Title IX.

Title IX — the 1972 federal law that bars gender discrimination, including hostile environments created by failing to address sexual assault and sexual harassment, at any federally-funded education institution — is supposed to help ensure that survivors of sexual assault can safely remain in school. But a lawsuit filed on Thursday against the University of South Florida (USF) shows there’s still a long way to go when it comes to providing victims a safe environment for learning.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Samantha Garrett, a doctoral student who started studying at USF in 2015, and who has decided to disclose her real name in court documents. The suit alleges that even after a USF investigation concluded Garrett had been sexually assaulted by a fellow doctoral student, the school allowed her attacker to remain in in her program and in close contact with Garrett — and silenced professors who objected to this arrangement.

Garrett says she visited Andrew Thurston, another doctoral student in the small program — which is made up of only approximately two dozen graduate students — on the evening of November 12, 2016. That night, and into the following morning, Thurston sexually assaulted Garrett “with use of physical force and violence,” according to the complaint.

The lawsuit says that even after Garrett physically resisted Thurston, and repeatedly demanded he “stop,” he continued to remove her clothes and rape her, leaving her bruised and bloodied. He then kept her trapped in his apartment until late the following morning. In the days following the attack, Thurston reportedly acknowledged what he did to Garrett and apologized, saying he was both a “monster” and a “bad person.”

A few weeks after the attack. Garrett told her professor about what happened, and she was directed to file a Title IX complaint. The investigation seems to have been handled properly, and in March of this year, USF determined that there was “sufficient evidence to substantiate” that Thurston had committed “non-consensual intercourse and non-consensual sexual contact” against Garrett. Thurston accepted responsibility for the charges.

And yet Thurston has faced practically no punishment. He received a deferred suspension, which goes through May 4, 2018, meaning he won’t have to miss a single class. He was given a “no-contact” order, but the lawsuit alleges that it has not been enforced at all — it claims Thurston is permitted to park in the same parking lot as Garrett; be on campus at the same time as Garrett; attend the same classes as Garrett; enter classrooms while Garrett is teaching; and attend all department meetings, conferences, and events alongside Garrett.

So Garrett has essentially had a choice — remain in close quarters with her rapist, or miss opportunities provided by her doctoral program.

In this context, Garrett says she has continued to struggle academically, and suffered from extreme mental health difficulties, including “chronic panic attacks, anxiety, poor concentration, hyper-vigilance, and other debilitating conditions.”

Thurston — who, once again, was determined to have sexually assaulted a fellow student by USF and did not object to that characterization — is also allowed to teach undergraduate students and conduct private meeting with individual students. Thurston’s students have not been alerted to USF officials about his conduct, and the complaint says that officials have “actively discouraged” Garrett from alerting them herself.

According to the lawsuit, even professors allege to have been discouraged from complaining about FSU’s handling of the situation.

Garrett has continued to complain about the inadequate restrictions placed on Thurston. But she says that USF officials, including USF’s Senior Deputy Title IX Coordinator Crystal Coombes, told her that Title IX also gives her rapist “the right to equitable access” to education settings, even if it deprives Garrett of her own educational opportunities. Coombes reportedly even encouraged Garrett to withdraw from USF because of her concerns with Thurston.

It seems on the surface that Garrett’s lawsuit provides clear evidence of Title IX violations. When it comes to Title IX enforcement, one can never be sure. In 2011, President Obama’s administration wrote a guidance letter to schools that emphasized their obligation to take sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus seriously. However, the new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has shown much more concern for the rights of the people accused of sexual assault on campus than for rights of the women (and men) who say they have been victimized.

There are currently 350 Title IX investigations open at 255 colleges and universities across the nation. This is the third complaint at USF; the other two remain under federal review.