Lawsuit: Former Tennis Player Says U of A Mishandled Rape Case
FAYETTEVILLE (KFSM) — A former student-athlete at the University of Arkansas has filed a lawsuit against the school and its board of trustees, accusing them of multiple Title IX violations.
The female victim, a former tennis player for the Razorbacks, claimed the University of Arkansas discriminated against her due to her gender, created a hostile educational environment and violated the Campus Save Act.
The lawsuit claimed the university staff were made aware that violations needed to be reported to supervisors and Title IX staff during the 2014-2015 academic year. However, according to the lawsuit, the University of Arkansas did not mandate sexual harassment training, prevention or awareness programs for faculty, staff and students.
According to the lawsuit, the victim and Raymond Higgs, a track athlete at the University of Arkansas, had met in August 2014 through an online dating app and, on a single occasion, had consensual sex. Two months later though, Higgs realized she was not interested in a relationship, the lawsuit stated. It also claimed that Higgs had been arrested three previous times (two in the same day) on suspicion of aggravated assault, third-degree assault against a female and terroristic threatening.
The victim was sexually assaulted by Higgs on October 20, 2014, according to the lawsuit. She immediately requested a meeting with the director of Clinical and Sports Psychology, Dr. Michael Johnson. She also spoke with the team trainer, who told tennis coach Michael Hegarty that the player needed to be excused from practice. The lawsuit stated that a friend of the victim claimed Coach Hegarty “said something like, ‘We all knew [the victim] was a bit different.'”
The lawsuit stated that the team trainer, Julie Martin, informed a Title IX coordinator for the university. Johnson met with the victim on October 21, who was reported as being tearful throughout much of the session, and expressed feeling confused and numb.
Nine days after the incident, Title IX coordinator Monica Holland informed the victim that the University of Arkansas had enough information to proceed with a Title IX investigation.
The lawsuit claimed that Coach Hegarty told the victim there was no demand or pressure for her, saying he understood the rules and laws of the situation. He also relayed to her that she was on a GPA break for the team. The victim stated that she had not been aware of being placed on a break and had received no notice of such placement, according to the lawsuit.
Several attempts from the victim’s mother to contact Coach Hegarty about her daughter’s status with the team went unanswered, the lawsuit stated.
On November 6, two weeks after the University of Arkansas was notified of the assault, the school sent Higgs a no-contact order regarding the victim, according to the lawsuit. Two days later, the mother emailed the university again, expressing concerns that her daughter was struggling, as she was still living at the residence in which the assault happened. She assured the school though that her daughter was not dropping out of school.
A Title IX worker was quoted as stating in an email to another administrator, “This situation seems to be worsening.”
The victim met with Ashley McNamara, the program coordinator for the Office of Student Standards and Conduct, to discuss the case on November 18. The following day, the victim was informed that Nicole Ferguson, the Student Affairs case manager, would be the point of contact for all communication regarding the case.
The lawsuit stated that the victim had to drop an Economics course in November because of confusion from the professor and Ferguson.
Martin informed the victim that the athletic department would not allow her to make a character statement for her for the hearing. However, the lawsuit claimed that Higgs’ track coach was able to submit a character letter on Higgs’ behalf.
The track coach, Travis Geopfert, stated in the letter in early December, “Admittedly, Raymond has had documented issued of misconduct while here at the university…I don’t believe he’s capable of physically hurting anyone…It’s my hope that this accusation will not prevent this young man from graduating from the University of Arkansas.”
The coach added, “I do not want to integrate myself deeply into this matter.”
The lawsuit stated that on November 24, one month after the assault, it was determined there was enough information for Title IX hearings.
The victim retained the services of an adviser, Laura Dunn, of a non-profit organization focused on sexual assault.
Assistant Director of the Office of Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Rachel Eikenberry later expressed concern in the hearing, stating that she had to deal with conflicting meetings, booked schedules and staff out of office around the beginning of December.
The administrative hearing took place on December 11, and the victim was informed that she was not to have friends attend the hearing, even for “support during this emotional time,” the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit stated that some questions at the hearing drew controversy and, when two U.S. senators reviewed footage of the hearing, they described it as “ignorant” and “extremely uninformed, not trained.”
The hearing panel unanimously sided with the victim and determined the appropriate resolution was immediate expulsion for Higgs, the lawsuit stated. On December 17 though, Higgs appealed the decision.
On January 29, 2015, Higgs received an Appeal Decision Letter that his expulsion had been upheld, but the date was moved for the end of the semester on May 10, after he would receive his diploma, according to the lawsuit.
The letter stated, “In light of the fact that you had successfully completed your graduation requirements at the University of Arkansas prior to the date of the hearing panel’s decision, we do not believe that imposition of the sanction of immediate expulsion is appropriate in this case.”
Included in the letter was a notice that Higgs was forbidden to be on or attend any event at the university for three years, or until the victim was no longer enrolled.
The letter was signed by Chancellor David Gearhart and Vice Provost of Student Affairs Daniel Pugh on January 29.
The lawsuit stated Dunn noted the possibility of Higgs being allowed to access loopholes in the system to receive his diploma.
After reporter Tyler Kingkade of the Huffington Post noted on February 10 that the school was essentially punishing a student it found responsible for a sexual assault with expulsion after graduating, Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations Laura Jacobs stated that the appeal decision letter was sent in error, and did not reflect the decision of the chancellor and the vice provost, according to the lawsuit.
Jacobs stated the wrong letter was auto-penned and sent and, although the chancellor’s calendar listed he was at the campus that day, there were periods of time that he was away.
The lawsuit claimed that Tamla Lewis, the associate general counsel for the University of Arkansas, who had defended the first appeal letter, sent a letter to the prosecutor’s office, noting it would replace the previous correspondence. The new letter was also dated January 29, 2015.
The victim withdrew from the university after the spring semester.
The victim, represented by Schneider & Pawlik, PLLC in Rogers, has filed the lawsuit in hopes to be awarded damages, punitive damages, costs of litigation and other relief the court deems proper, the document stated.