IA School Accused of Botching Assault Probe

     AMES, Iowa (CN) — A former student claims in court that Iowa State University bungled its response to her sexual-assault claims, delaying its investigation and forcing her to live in housing next door to her alleged attacker.
     Former Iowa State University student Melissa Maher says another student sexually assaulted her in campus housing on March 30, 2014.
     She reported the incident to the university’s police that same day, but campus representatives “actively discouraged” her from formally reporting the assault, and a student advisor downplayed the incident by “suggesting circumstances under which the assault could have been worse,” according to a complaint filed Sept. 9 in Story County District Court.
     When Maher withdrew from the university for the remainder of the spring semester to work through the aftermath of the assault, her student-assistance advisor incorrectly dropped four of her classes, which resulted in a transcript showing a .81 GPA for the semester, which put her scholarship at risk, she says.
     In May, Maher contacted the school again to identify the alleged assailant, who had threatened her not to report the assault, according to the complaint.
     Despite knowing his identity, the school allegedly assigned Maher to student housing next door to where he lived when she returned for the fall semester.
     This led to her encountering her alleged assailant at housing complex events and at the bus stop outside the dorms on a nearly daily basis, she claims.
     When she complained, the university told her that “the assailant had rights and should be allowed to stay in better housing than ISU offered Maher,” according to the lawsuit.
     Despite claiming that it would have a response to its investigation within 60 days of Maher identifying her assailant, the university took four months to return its report, which showed “the university felt that the evidence barely showed a sexual assault had occurred,” Maher says.
     Because of the school’s ineffective response and Maher’s continued proximity to her alleged attacker, she withdrew from the school again, this time for good, according to the complaint.
     “As a result of ISU’s inaction and actions, Maher lost a scholarship at ISU, suffered and continues to suffer significant emotional distress, fell behind on her studies, and has suffered a serious set-back to her earning capacity,” the lawsuit claims.
     Maher is suing the school for denial of benefits.
     She has also taken her story public, standing up with 50 other sexual assault victims at the 2016 Oscar awards during Lady Gaga’s performance of “Til It Happens to You.”
     Lady Gaga co-wrote the song with Diane Warren for the 2015 documentary film, “The Hunting Ground,” which addresses campus sexual assault.
     “There’s a larger issue that’s going on here,” Andrew Zbaracki, Maher’s attorney, said in an interview. “A lot of campuses take it upon themselves to investigate these things and prosecute them as violations of their policies. The concern that we have is that ISU did that poorly, didn’t really move things along, so the assailant continues to go to school while the victim deals with the aftermath. The university compounds the issue by not taking it seriously.”
     Zbaracki added, “This is not an isolated incident. Sexual assaults are happening on campus, so the university should have a process in place so that [the student] doesn’t come back in contact with her assailant, so she knows things are going forward and she can feel safe on campus, and that did not happen to Maher.”
     The student charged with the assault, Patrick Whetstone, faces trial on Sept. 27. Whetstone, 21, has pleaded not guilty to third-degree sexual abuse charges, according to an Iowa State Daily report.
     Zbaracki is with the Newbrough Law Firm in Ames, Iowa.
     Iowa State University did not respond Monday to email and voicemail requests for comment.

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