Lawsuit alleges UT is deliberately indifferent to sexual assaults

(Courtesy: WATE)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Six unidentified women are suing the University of Tennessee saying the university violated their federal right to be protected from sexual harassment and sexual violence on campus.

The women claim the university has created a student culture that enables sexual assault by athletes, particularly football players.

The lawsuit, whose plaintiffs are only identified as “Jane Doe,” accuses five former athletes of sexual assault: former basketball player Yemi Makanjuola, former football players A.J. Johnson, Michael Williams and Riyahd Jones, and a current football player who was not identified.

Courtesy: WATE
Courtesy: WATE

That alleged assault, according to the suit, happened after a football team party at Vol Hall in September 2014 where the victim was served drinks by former UT player Treyvon Paulk, who was still taking part in team events despite an allegation of battery by his girlfriend weeks before.

The lawsuit alleges the university enables an environment of bad behavior and its disciplinary system favors the players, citing more than a dozen other incidents involving football players, some previously unreported.

The plaintiffs accuse UT of being deliberately indifferent to sexual assaults, interfering with the disciplinary process in favor of male athletes charged with rape and “directly supporting, maintaining and controlling environments for athletes in the major sports of football and basketball that encouraged underage drinking, drug use and rape.”

Courtesy: WATE
Courtesy: WATE

The suit specifically names Chancellor Jimmy Cheek, Athletic Director Dave Hart and Head Football Coach Butch Jones as knowing about sexual assaults and rapes by football players yet acting with indifference and failing to take corrective actions.

According to the plaintiffs, the Tennessee Uniform Administrative Procedures Act (TUAPA) procedure is one-sided and favors the athletes because it only allows those accused of sexual assaults, not victims, to have right of confrontation, cross-examination and an evidentiary administrative hearing.

Cheek allegedly appoints administrative judges and hearing officers favorable to athletes, and then is responsible for deciding any appeals.

The plaintiffs are asking for an unspecified monetary award, an order preventing UT from unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex and other means to address violations of Title IX, including a comprehensive sexual assault policy.

Bill Ramsey, an attorney for the university, sent News 2 a statement saying the allegations in the lawsuit were “simply not true.” His full statement reads:

Like the many other college campuses facing the challenges of sexual assault, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has devoted significant time and energy to provide a safe environment for our students, to educate and raise awareness about sexual assault, and to encourage students to come forward and report sexual assault. When the University receives a report of sexual assault, we offer care and support to the person who came forward and work to investigate and resolve the matter in a timely, thorough, and equitable manner. When warranted, the University takes disciplinary action but will not do so in a manner that violates state law or the constitutional due process rights of our students.

In the situations identified in the lawsuit filed today; the University acted lawfully and in good faith, and we expect a court to agree. Any assertion that we do not take sexual assault seriously enough is simply not true. To claim that we have allowed a culture to exist contrary to our institutional commitment to providing a safe environment for our students or that we do not support those who report sexual assault is just false. The University will provide a detailed response to the lawsuit and looks forward to doing so at the appropriate time, and in the proper manner.

Nashville attorney David Raybin is not affiliated with any of the people involved on either side of this case. He read the lawsuit for News 2.

“These lawsuits are pending all over the United States connected to Title IX violations and sexual violations,” Raybin said. “The allegation is the schools are either condoning it or not doing enough.”

In fact, Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, Florida State University, George Washington University, Michigan State University and others have faced similar suits in recent years.

News 2 reached out to the attorneys for the alleged victims. They are represented by David Randolph Smith and Associates.

David Smith declined to comment on the allegations, but would say, “We are working hard on the case and look forward to getting it together and being in court very soon.”

Attorneys are scheduled to have an initial case management conference on April 18.

*WATE contributed to this report.

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