Swimmer's death casts light on campus sex assaults

Thursday - 1/30/2014, 12:20am EST

ALAN SCHER ZAGIER
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Colleges and universities are struggling with sex assaults on campus, even as they spend more time and money to comply with stricter enforcement of gender discrimination laws.

But the case of a University of Missouri swimmer, who said she was raped in an episode her parents say led her to suicide, presents a challenge: How do schools balance protecting their student populations with the needs of victims like Sasha Menu Courey, who chose not to go to police?

A police investigation is now underway, but Menu Courey's parents say the university and its athletics department should have already investigated their daughter's alleged off-campus rape by as many as three football players in February 2010.

University leaders said they didn't learn about the purported attack until after Menu Courey committed suicide 16 months later. They said they followed the law and didn't have specific knowledge of the incident or a victim to interview. But late Wednesday, the school's Board of Curators voted to hire a law firm to review the school's handling of the case.

President Barack Obama last week announced a new task force on college sex assault, citing statistics showing that 1 in 5 females are assaulted while in college but only 1 in 8 report attacks. The White House called it a public health epidemic.

At least 50 schools have bolstered their efforts in recent years. Complaints of Title IX violations related to sexual violence are also increasing, a sign that Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, attributes to new vigilance on campus.

"Obviously, there are all too many that still need prompting," she said.

Lhamon's department recently announced an investigation of Penn State University's handling of sexual harassment and assault complaints. The University of Colorado and California State University-Fresno have been ordered to pay millions for Title IX violations asserted in victim lawsuits.

At the University of Missouri, extensive efforts have been made to reduce sexual violence on campus. An equity office led by a lawyer oversees compliance with Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law more commonly known for ensuring equal gender participation in college sports. Counseling and help is available through two campus agencies.

Students who eschew legal intervention can seek a campus disciplinary hearing. The university can also help students switch dorms or classes, or bar contact outright.

The university didn't immediately investigate after Menu Courey, who was from Canada, killed herself in June 2011. She had by then withdrawn from classes at the university's urging and lost her financial aid.

The 20-year-old, who had attempted suicide two months earlier, was in a Boston psychiatric hospital after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

"There are many resources out there, but there's not really any (sense) that she was provided with those resources," said Zachary Wilson, development director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. "It's difficult for sexual assault survivors to go at it alone."

The school said in a statement Tuesday that a 2012 Columbia Daily Tribune article about Menu Courey's suicide briefly alluded to the alleged assault, but didn't meet the legal standard that the school "reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment."

The school also said Menu Courey's parents ignored its request for more information a year ago after it discovered an online chat transcript with a campus rape counselor in which Menu Courey mentioned an earlier attack.

Missouri initially responded to an ESPN story about the swimmer by defending its handling of the case, then said it was turning over information to Columbia police.

University President Tim Wolfe wants the school's governing board to pay for an independent legal review of how officials handled the case.

Wolfe said the university was committed to bolstering its mental health services. He also noted his own daughter was a first-year college athlete.

"One of our students is dead," Wolfe said. "Our goal is to help the Sashas of the world."

Other sexual assault cases have been linked to Missouri's athletic department, including former running back Derrick Washington's 2010 conviction for sexually assaulting a tutor in her sleep. Basketball player Michael Dixon transferred in 2012 after two sex assault claims against him went public, though he was never charged.

In suburban Toronto, Mike Menu and his wife, Lynn Courey, have channeled their grief into a mental health foundation named for their daughter. They aren't looking for money from the university, just accountability.

"We just want to make sure that changes are made," he said. "We need more than Band-Aids. We need a transformation."

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