LYNCHBURG — A dozen women have filed a lawsuit against Liberty University, claiming that the school’s policies have allowed for a hostile campus culture that has retaliated against women who have been victims of sexual violence and saying the university has investigated such claims with a slant in favor of the perpetrators.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, demands unspecified damages for seven claims under Title IX, the federal law that protects against sex discrimination in education.
The suit describes sexual assaults and domestic violence against multiple students, as well as discrimination against a pregnant and breastfeeding student, during the past 21 years that were perpetuated through “the weaponization of the ‘Liberty Way,’ ” the school’s honor code.
In a statement, Liberty called the lawsuit’s allegations “deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true” and said “many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the university’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years.”
The women all filed suit anonymously and are identified as Jane Doe 1-12, now living in states across the country. The women either have been students, employees or attendees of Liberty programs. Five of them are from Virginia, and one of the five is from Lynchburg.
The incidents described in the lawsuit include four sexual assaults by student-athletes, one of whom was temporarily banned from campus and will be allowed to come back in 2022. Two of the women were employees who claim they experienced sexual harassment and assault from the same supervisor.
Many of the women who experienced or reported a sexual assault ended up facing consequences or investigation for drinking or having sexual conduct, both of which are forbidden under the Liberty Way, the lawsuit says.
According to the lawsuit, one woman was offered counseling after a sexual assault, but it turned out to be a fine for drinking. For most of the women who were assaulted, the accused perpetrator never faced any consequences, the suit says.
In many cases, the lawsuit states, the women weren’t aware of how to file a Title IX complaint and follow those procedures.
One woman was “a member of the Office of Student Conduct’s appeals board for ... Title IX cases, and had firsthand knowledge of the university’s treatment of the victims of sexual assault.
“Specifically as a result of that knowledge, she made no report to the university,” the lawsuit says.
Another woman was emotionally and physically abused by a fiancé whose connections “made him appear ‘untouchable’ ” as far as discipline at the university.
One woman was threatened with expulsion when she became pregnant during a time when Liberty “had no specific policy regarding pregnancies,” then faced other hurdles related to her pregnancy that weren’t backed by policy, the lawsuit says.
The earliest incident was in 2000, when one of the plaintiffs attended a debate camp at Liberty at age 15 and said Jesse Matthew Jr. — who was later convicted of murdering two college students, 20-year-old Virginia Tech student Morgan Harrington and 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham — sexually assaulted her.
Matthew was accused of rape by a Liberty student in 2002, but no one from the school contacted the plaintiff about that, according to the lawsuit.
After the teen immediately reported the assault to the Liberty University Police Department in 2000, the lawsuit says, the victim describes severe mismanagement of her case: being held for eight hours without food or drink; hearing one officer asking Matthew for an autograph because he was a Liberty football player at the time; being directed to “thoroughly wash her hands to destroy any DNA evidence and present her nails for inspection”; and LUPD demanding that she strip so the police chief could take nude photographs of her for evidence.
The girl refused, and instead a woman coaching the debate team took the nude photos, one of which involved the girl bending over a desk and exposing herself, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit says the victim is now concerned that these photos might have been “trafficked by the police."
At the time, the lawsuit says, LUPD told the girl that she could be expelled from the debate camp for wearing pants on campus, which was then a violation of the Liberty Way, and suggested that Matthew approached her for sex because she was wearing pants. Officers refused to take her to the hospital and “threatened her that if she did not withdraw her claim, she would be charged criminally with filing a false report,” the suit says.
Jack Larkin, the Pennsylvania lawyer who filed the lawsuit, said in it that multiple witnesses “who previously worked in the Office of Student Conduct came forward” to talk about the unfair way that Liberty would investigate sexual misconduct and how it “took action across multiple levels of its hierarchy to punish women who reported sexual violence.”
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York has jurisdiction over the claims because Liberty provides online services to people in that jurisdiction, the lawsuit says. The first plaintiff lives on Long Island in New York.
The school said Tuesday that it has an amnesty policy that encourages victim reports without looming discipline for sexual activity or drinking, as well as a “fair process” for resolving sexual misconduct.
Liberty said it will be investigating the claims “to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.