Four women filed a federal class action complaint Aug. 6 against the University, claiming that it not only neglected to protect its students from sexual harassment and sexual abuse, but also “actively prevented the reporting of such harm.”
The class of the suit, which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, includes every female-identifying student at the University from 2018 to present, which a press release estimated at 4,000 students. The four plaintiffs listed — Chloe Burns ’19, Taja Hirata-Epstein ’20, Katiana Soenen ’24 and Carter Woodruff ’22 — are all current University students or recent alums.
The suit represents the latest development in student activism to curb sexual assault on campus and reform the University’s response to sexual and gender-based violence — a decades-long campaign that saw a resurgence in the last year spearheaded by groups such as End Sexual Violence and the Instagram account Voices of Brown.
The suit details all four women's experiences of sexual assault while attending the University, including unsolicited recording, abusive relationships, assault and rape. When they brought their allegations to the University’s attention, they claim in the suit, employees “discouraged or even overtly prevented the proper reporting.” In addition, the plaintiffs claim that the complaints that were filed went “ignored and inadequately investigated or addressed.”
“Brown is not even doing the bare minimum here,” Kimberly Evans of Grant & Eisenhofer, which is representing the plaintiffs in the suit, told The Herald. “This isn’t a one-off situation — it’s a pervasive and widespread problem where the University is not even following its own policies, let alone the Title IX policies that are required by federal law.”
Student activism such as the End Sexual Violence movement also encountered resistance from the University, the suit claims: Administrators only met with student activists after “repeated requests” and implemented no “material” changes.
“Survivors at Brown are silenced, harmed and discouraged from seeking justice by the University,” the four plaintiffs said in a joint statement in a press release. “Brown’s recent history has been punctuated by numerous student uprisings led by survivors and their allies; however, the University has never responded to these pleas for justice with anything but begrudging, minor changes to policy and procedure.”
Senior Vice President for Communications Cass Cliatt wrote in an email to The Herald that the University has made it an “institutional priority” to create a zero-tolerance environment regarding sexual violence. The University has not yet been served with the lawsuit.
“Brown has taken a strategic and sustained approach to confronting sexual harassment and gender-based violence on campus dating back to transformative recommendations from the University’s Sexual Assault Task Force in 2015,” Cliatt wrote. “The increase in students reporting sexual violence, the greater confidence in the adjudication process, the data for students reporting they feel safer at Brown, as well as the ongoing partnership between students and the University around these critical issues, all reflect Brown’s aggressive actions to confront sexual violence.”
On March 2, the Title IX Office launched a new sexual and gender-based misconduct policy, which added to existing regulations to create a broader definition of sexual harassment, to categorize sexual exploitation and to include voyeurism, prostitution, disseminating sexual images of a person, exposing genitals and purposely exposing someone to a sexually transmitted infection as prohibited conduct.
Several weeks later, the Title IX Office launched a new online reporting form that allows students to report sexual harassment anonymously. The form, designed by former Title IX Program Officer Rene Davis, was created in response to a 2019 survey which revealed that 31.2 percent of University students surveyed had “little or no knowledge” about where to make a report of sexual violence or gender harassment whereas 30.4 percent were “very or extremely knowledgeable.”
But according to Evans and the suit, the University has failed to comply both with its own policies and legally mandated policies — by, among other things, failing to provide adequate training for students and employees regarding sexual misconduct and not pursuing cases involving graduated students, despite the University’s policy stating that there is no “time limit on submitting a Formal Complaint.”
The University’s failure to adequately address sexual assault and harassment meets the definition of sex and gender-based discrimination under federal Title IX law, the suit argues. Plaintiffs, it says, are owed damages for emotional distress, pain, suffering, medical expenses and the loss of employment, among a number of other problems encountered.
In addition to financial damages, the suit calls for a permanent injunction ensuring due process, new steps for investigating reports of discrimination and discipline for students who violate the Title IX Policy.
“The goal of this litigation is to effectuate real and meaningful and long-lasting change at Brown in the way it’s handling its Title IX sexual assault allegations,” said Elizabeth Bailey of Saltz Mongeluzzi & Bendesky, the second firm representing the plaintiffs.
“There have been cases around the country that have been successful in enacting the change that we are seeking at Brown,” Evans added.
Evans said the legal path forward is unclear at the moment: The University could settle with the plaintiffs out of court, or the case could reach trial.
“What happens next,” Bailey said, “is dependent on Brown.”
This story is developing. Check back for updates.
Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.
Gaya Gupta is the Senior Editor of Digital News. She previously covered diversity on campus. She is a junior from the San Francisco Bay Area studying computer science and English.