UC System Settles Student’s Sexual Assault Claims for $1.15M

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (CN) – In one of the largest settlements of a Title IX sexual assault case, the University of California Regents agreed to pay $1.15 million to a former University of California, Santa Cruz student who claims she was raped by her professor.

The settlement stems from claims that Luz Portillo was sexually assaulted by one of her professors in 2015, and that the university knew for years that the professor in question was prone to sexual harassment and did nothing to curtail it.

“They let the wolf roam,” said Portillo’s attorney Jon Kristensen.

Courthouse News does not typically print the names of sexual assault victims, but Portillo has come forward and given multiple interviews to news outlets and was identified by her lawyers.

“Nothing in the world will ever take the experience back and nothing in the world will make up for it,” Portillo, now 24, said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “But I didn’t want the narrative to be written for me and hopefully this will help someone else.”

The incident in question happened the day before Portillo, who was 21 at the time, was scheduled to graduate, when an assistant professor and another student who was employed at the university at the time took her to a local Santa Cruz winery under the pretext of completing her studies.

Plied with wine to the point of intoxication, the professor, student and Portillo later went back to the student-employee’s house, where Portillo was given still more wine.

Portillo was “severely intoxicated to the point she was not fully conscious” when the two men engaged in nonconsensual sexual acts with Portillo, according to Kristensen.

The landmark payout of $1.15 million is believed to be one of the largest ever related to a university sexual assault case, exceeding Florida State University’s settlement of the high-profile case involving Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, Kristensen said.

Kristensen said it was important that the claim was brought against the UC system due to the university’s repeated failure to investigate or respond to sexual harassment claims brought against the professor in question.

“How many more students will it take for the universities on this country to get the message that it must act to safeguard its students from predatory faculty?” Kristensen said. ” We hope this settlement sends a message to the UC system that it must take responsibility for its secrecy and its failure to protect its students.”

UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal released a statement following reports on the settlement, saying the university moved rapidly once Portillo brought her claims to the administration’s attention.

” As soon as these allegations were reported, the campus acted swiftly to address the victim’s claims, which appeared to be clear violations of the UC Santa Cruz policy on sexual violence and sexual harassment,” Blumenthal said in a statement released Jan. 31.

The university launched a Title IX investigation immediately and removed the professor from campus. He resigned amid the university’s disciplinary proceedings, the chancellor said.

The settlement comes amid increased national scrutiny of the issue of sexual assault on college campuses. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education distributed the “Dear Colleague” letter, which essentially told colleges and universities that if they failed to more robustly investigate and adjudicate matters of sexual assault, they would be in danger of losing federal funds.

The letter and ensuing actions have been criticized by many who say sexual assaults are a complex matter better left to the criminal justice system, and that the environment makes it tougher for those falsely accused of sexual assault to get a fair, unbiased hearing.

However, many praise the ramped-up efforts of universities and colleges, saying institutions of higher learning have too long tolerated and even ignored the rampant problem of sexual assault on campus.

Portillo told the San Francisco Chronicle she hopes her story will help others similarly victimized.

“Sexual assault has been a very common theme in higher education, and it should not be happening,” Portillo told the newspaper. “If me coming forward helps any other victim, that’s the best thing I could have done.”

Kristensen is with Kristensen Weisberg LLP in Los Angeles.