Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, June 22, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

College Sued Over Response to Sex Assault

(CN) - When a James Madison University student was sexually assaulted by three other students and a video of the assault circulated around campus, university officials failed to support the victim or adequately punish the perpetrators, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Federal Court for the Western District of Virginia.

Three fraternity brothers sexually assaulted plaintiff Sarah Elizabeth Butters during the students' spring break in 2013. She says she returned to campus to find a video of the incident widely circulating throughout the James Madison community.

Butters says she was cornered in a bathroom by Jay Dertzbaugh, Michael Lunney, Jr. and Nicholas Scallion while highly intoxicated in Panama City, Fla. The three Butters' bathing suit top and used a cellphone camera to videotape themselves groping and fondling her bare breasts, according to the complaint.

The woman says she repeatedly told the men their actions were "not all right," and told them "no" and to stop. She was unsteady on her feet and slurring her words, too intoxicated to consent to anything, the complaint states.

After almost two weeks of rampant sexual harassment and continued victimization due to the video's circulation after spring break, Butters reported the incident to her sorority and the men's fraternity, according to her lawsuit. Sigma Chi promptly expelled the three fraternity brothers after viewing the video, and banned them from future fraternity events.

But when Butters accompanied her sorority advisor to report the assault to JMU's associate director of judicial affairs, she was met with much less desire for action.

Without viewing the video of the assault, Associate Director of Judicial Affairs Wendy Young told Butters that JMU's process for handling reports of sexual assault would require Butters to relive the assault multiple times and spend a considerable amount of time and effort explaining the circumstances of the event.

Young also told the woman that there were a variety of sanctions including expulsion, but that expulsion was unlikely, according to the suit.

"In its totality, Ms. Young's initial conversation discouraged and dissuaded Ms. Butters from pursuing her complaint, and communicated the unmistakable impression that James Madison University's policy for handling student-on-student sexual assault and harassment, even when proven by video recording, was to discourage the victim from proceeding with a complaint," Butters says in her complaint.

Disheartened by the meeting, Butters asked for university officials to view the video and consider her lack of consent as shown in the video, but also said she did not want to be involved in the university's handling of the incident. Butters was told JMU would neither investigate nor act upon the incident independently, according to the lawsuit, although Young followed up with Butters once via email to check on her and see if she made a decision about proceeding with her complaint.

Butters says she struggled socially and academically, and the sexual harassment continued. She encountered the perpetrators of her assault regularly, so she gradually stopped attending classes and failed all her courses.

Butters' father, a police officer, emailed JMU in November with a list of questions as to how the university was handling his daughter's assault. Dr. Josh Bacon, director of the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices, said that upon viewing the video he thought the actions were consensual, the suit alleges.

When her financial aid was revoked because she failed her classes in December 2013, Butters decided to proceed with the formal adjudication process to punish the men who assaulted her. In January 2014, Butters' formal complaint process began.

After three hearings, the men were found responsible for sexual assault and harassment. Bacon met with Butters to inform her that his intended sanction was "expulsion after graduation."

The punishment had no protocol in place to actually bar the men from campus after graduation, and Butters would still be subjected to seeing them on campus until their graduation day. If the men contacted her while they were all still on campus, the university told Butters that her only remedy would be to call the police, the lawsuit says.

Upon Bacon's recommendation, Butters appealed the first decision. A second round of hearings got the three men expelled from the university, which they appealed.

On April 3, 2014, more than a year after she first reported the incident to JMU and after three separate adjudications, the men were expelled upon graduation. Two of the men received their degrees, one can continue attending JMU until he completes his degree, and Butters withdrew from the university, according to the complaint.

"Through this frustrating ordeal, James Madison University broke its most fundamental promise to Ms. Butters," the lawsuit states. "James Madison University's discriminatory conduct deprived Ms. Butters of the opportunity to which she was entitled to learn, grow and mature, by denying her full and free access to the educational, social, recreational, and personal benefits and opportunities afforded by the university. Concurrently, James Madison University sent a powerful message to all of its students, prospective students, alumni, faculty, employees and the outside world that the university values its self-interest and desire to protect its reputation ahead of the safety and well-being of its students with regard to sexual assault and harassment."

Butters is represented by the law firm of Allen, Allen, Allen & Allen.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.