Title IX requires university to investigate sexual assault claims

Emily Mills

Former Kent State softball player Lauren Kesterson alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that the university and her former softball coach violated her Title IX rights.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, charges the university and Karen Linder with violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in educational institutions. Kesterson alleges Linder’s son, a then-varsity baseball player, raped her and that athletic department officials covered up the alleged incident.

“An educational institution is at risk of both federal sanctions as well as liability by way of a civil lawsuit if they maintain a hostile environment on campus that makes women uncomfortable to go there,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C. “Either a failure to prevent or a failure to adequately respond to a sexual assault equates to a hostile environment for women.”

LoMonte said the U.S. Department of Education wants to make it easy for students to file Title IX complaints.

“They know that lodging a complaint against your institution just by nature is a very intimidating process,” LoMonte said.

The suit also alleges university staff members, including Athletic Director Joel Nielsen, knew of the rape and failed to follow university policy in investigating the allegation.

“If they were delaying the filing for purposes of concealment, then that could easily be a Title IX violation,” LoMonte said.

All Kent State employees are required to report all instances of gender/sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking and intimate partner violence to a Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinator, according to section 5-16.2 of the University Policy Register.

LoMonte said employees are meant to act as “mandatory reporters.”

In addition, Title IX coordinators or deputy coordinators must also investigate any reported instances of gender/sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, stalking and intimate partner violence, which is separate from any law enforcement investigations.

An administrator attempting to block a student from filing a Title IX complaint would be in violation of Title IX, LoMonte said.

“That would be a very dangerous answer for a college employee to give,” LoMonte said in regards to Kesterson alleging Nielsen intervened to prevent the filing of a formal complaint.

According to section 5-16.2 of the University Policy Register, once a Title IX coordinator is made aware of an alleged violation, an informal investigation begins and the alleged victim is made aware of any remedial measures available to them, including no-contact orders, law enforcement action and legal, medical and counseling services. 

No-contact orders are imposed when “the university has reasonable cause to believe that the interaction of two people may pose a risk to the safety or well-being of those involved or others in the university community,” according to section 5-16.2 of the University Policy Register.

The orders prohibit all communication between the two parties, including email, social media, text messaging and phone calls.

The alleged victim must give consent for a formal investigation to be conducted, including interviews and information collection. The formal investigation is to be completed within 60 days after the alleged victim consents to the investigation.

“When we are formally served with the complaint, we will answer accordingly,” university spokesman Eric Mansfield said. “The university is strongly committed to Title IX, and we take these matters very seriously. We follow all policies and procedures related to Title IX, taking measures above and beyond what is required to ensure all students, staff and faculty are aware of their rights and responsibilities.”

Representatives from Kent State’s athletic department — including Nielsen and interim softball coach Eric Oakley — and Jennifer O’Connell, director of Kent State’s Sexual and Relationship Violence Support Services, referred to Mansfield for comment on the lawsuit.

Erin Barton, the Title IX coordinator at the time Kesterson allegedly filed a Title IX complaint, has not responded to voicemails requesting comment.

Subodh Chandra, a Cleveland-area attorney representing Lauren Kesterson, said his office would be speaking for Kesterson in the media. 

Emily Mills is a reporter for the Kent Stater. For more information contact her at [email protected].