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Will honor demands to aid assault survivors, UA says

by Jaime Adame | April 29, 2021 at 6:48 a.m.
Old Main on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus is shown in this Aug. 30, 2014, file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo)

FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville will meet a petition's demands for more to be done to help survivors of sexual violence after a recent graduate's push for change, officials said.

Actions will include establishing a fund for student support efforts in an amount greater than the $20,000 legal settlement paid to a former student found responsible by a campus panel for sexual assault under university policy, Chancellor Joe Steinmetz confirmed in a text message Wednesday.

Gillian Gullett, 23, called out the university on social media last week for paying a settlement to the former student, who she reported had assaulted her. She also criticized UA for failing to update her about settlement talks with the man identified in court documents as "John Doe."

The settlement ended a federal lawsuit filed by "Doe," who had argued that gender discrimination and a lack of due process led to him being wrongly sanctioned for misconduct.

In a phone interview earlier this week, Gullett called it "incredibly blindsiding to not be notified of this at all or included in the process." Gullett gave the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette permission to use her name.

In posts on social media, Gullett on Tuesday evening described success for a petition she co-authored to demand change.

"I met with Chancellor Steinmetz (virtually) this afternoon and he has agreed to meet ALL FIVE DEMANDS. Thank you all for signing. We did it," her post stated.

A demand in the petition -- which had more than 1,400 signatures by Tuesday night, two days after being published online -- is that those reporting sexual violence be kept updated about such legal developments.

The petition cites UA's Title IX policy and states that "individuals involved have the right to know the status of an investigation at any time, and including subsequent lawsuits in the aforementioned policy."

"Nobody, ever again, should have to find out about a lawsuit implicating their Title IX case from a reporter instead of the University," the petition states.

Amy Schlesing, a UA spokeswoman, in response to a question about changes after the petition, said there is a plan to "enhance practices around communications concerning legal developments with persons who may be impacted, as appropriate, with details to be developed."

The demands include having more "trauma-informed" staffers at the university's Title IX office, which responds to campus complaints of sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Another petition demand is to have sexual violence curriculum in freshman experience courses known as University Perspectives. The petition also asks for the campus to take up the Callisto online platform that aims to make it easier to report instances of sexual violence.

Steinmetz, in a text message, confirmed that the university will follow the steps outlined in the petition.

Asked when changes will occur, Steinmetz said, "We are targeting July 1 but some things will take a bit longer to put in place."

Steinmetz said he approved funding on Wednesday for additional Title IX staffers, with the office to be restructured.

"It's impossible to hire all new staff by July 1 so that will take some more time," Steinmetz said.

The current Title IX coordinator, Liz Means, is stepping down at the end of the month, a spokesman has said. Means took on the role in March 2020.

The fund to assist students who experience sexual violence doesn't yet have an exact amount, Steinmetz said.

"It will be an endowment that we can add to in the future through fund-raising efforts as well. Many details to still work out," Steinmetz said.

Julia Nall, the 2020-21 student body president, and Coleman Warren, the Associated Student Government president for the upcoming school year, co-created the petition with Gullett.

About 40 people attended a student-led demonstration Friday in support of sexual assault survivors, with many at the event speaking critically about UA's response to sexual assault complaints and concerns.

Nall, in a text message, said a similar event is scheduled for Friday to allow students to voice their experiences.

She said she's "incredibly happy with and proud" of the petition's success, but "I don't think that means we should stop paying attention or stop applying pressure."

A student senator in the Associated Student Government, Sophie Hill, last week began using social media to collect anonymous testimonies from students about their experiences reporting sexual violence and harassment at UA.

Nall said she turned over a portion of those testimonies to Steinmetz. She estimated that more than 50 such testimonies were gathered.

"A common theme in many of the testimonies I've seen has been a lack of empathy or compassion from the Title IX office. I understand the office is legal and bureaucratic in nature, but that doesn't mean administrators can't be a little kinder," Nall said.

UA released the settlement agreement with "Doe" under the state's public disclosure law after he and the university this month filed a joint motion to dismiss the suit.

In the campus case, UA's Title IX coordinator found "Doe" not responsible for misconduct before a panel ruled in the case on appeal, voting 2-1 in 2018 against "Doe."

The university uses a preponderance of evidence standard.

"Doe" was allowed to graduate but required "to complete Title IX training, 10 hours of community service and an online sexual violence accountability course," court documents state.

UA, as part of the settlement, is providing "Doe" with a letter stating in part that a different conclusion to his case could have been reached under a revision to campus disciplinary procedures that took place in August 2020. The letter also states that no criminal charges were filed against "Doe" and that he remains eligible to apply for admission or employment at UA.

In 2019, U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes III dismissed the lawsuit by "Doe," but on appeal the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September revived the case, stating that there was a "plausible claim that the University discriminated against Doe on the basis of sex."

The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion states that the allegations made by "Doe" in the lawsuit "support an inference that the hearing panel reached an outcome that was against the substantial weight of the evidence."

The appellate court rejected arguments that due process rights were clearly violated. When it comes to the campus hearing involving "Doe," his lawsuit "does not identify any material flaw in this proceeding," the 8th Circuit opinion states.

Attorneys for "Doe," Heather Zachary and Justin Zachary, did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

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