by Nicole Vulcan

Regardless of whether University administrators ignored claims of harassment in the past, if it happens in the future, victims can sue the University.
On Tuesday, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor ruled that schools may be liable for not acting on claims of harassment that occur between students. The case sets a precedent for all schools that receive federal funding.
“This is a very important decision for American education,” said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel. “It will especially be a challenge for very large educational institutions like the University with many thousands of students coming from very diverse backgrounds.”
Rotenberg said University President Mark Yudof contacted him Wednesday, asking him to immediately look into ways for the University to deal with this new challenge.
The case pitted an elementary school student against a Georgia school district that ignored her complaints of being sexually harassed by a fellow student.
A Georgia circuit court had previously ruled that the school district could not be held responsible for student-upon-student disputes; O’Connor’s decision reversed that ruling.
If plaintiffs can prove institutions acted with “deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment,” they may seek monetary damages.
Rotenberg said it is impossible to speculate how substantially the University’s caseload will be affected by the decision. “I think we’ll initially see many efforts to push the envelope,” Rotenberg said. “That will cost taxpayers.”
Julie Sweitzer, director of the University’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, said that unlike elementary schools, most student contact at universities is restricted less to the classroom and more to places like residence halls.
“This case is important, but does deal with an elementary school student,” Sweitzer said.
She said her office will use the recent decision as an example when training resident assistants and advisers in the protocol for dealing with student disputes.
“This is a good opportunity to take advantage of the publicity of the Supreme Court decision to increase awareness,” Sweitzer said. “We’ve been enforcing this policy for years. We do a good job but can always do better.”

Implications for the U
After former office manager Jan Gangelhoff came forward in March with allegations of academic fraud within the Gopher men’s basketball program, Yudof initiated an investigation into the matter. Yudof expanded the investigation last week after two women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct within the men’s football program.
Rebecca Fabunmi, who worked as a tutor in the academic counseling unit, alleges she contacted several University officials, including then-athletic director McKinley Boston and former football coach Jim Wacker about problems she encountered with players. Fabunmi said Boston encouraged her to change her story after she came to him.
Yudof said last week that he wants investigators to answer the following question: “Is there a pattern or system in men’s athletics that systematically tries to discourage, dissuade, coerce or cajole women from filing grievances?” Yudof said he would not tolerate this behavior if the answer is yes.
The recent decision by the Supreme Court could further affect how the situation in men’s athletics — as well as other harassment problems around the University — are handled. For the moment, it puts all employees of the University on alert to harassment issues.
“It’s an odd fact scenario,” Rotenberg said. “In this case, it isn’t a student-on-student situation but an employee-student situation.”
One student’s story
Not all students pursuing harassment grievances do so because of sexual assault.
Barry Peterson graduated in 1996 after 10 years at the University. He developed bipolar disorder during his freshman year, causing him to be a “difficult resident,” he said, inspiring the angst of resident assistants and residence hall directors.
But his disorder also caused him to be the target of harassment by a fellow student over the course of a few years, including beatings, death threats and threatening letters, he said. He asserts the harassment he endured caused his resulting grades to be sub-par.
Peterson said he contacted everyone he could about the problem, including residence hall officials, the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and University police.
“The cops told me to stop looking for attention,” he said. “They say the same thing to rape victims.”
Peterson said University police never made a report despite his repeated contacts with them. He obtained a restraining order against the student in 1991 after getting nowhere with University officials, he said.
Though statute of limitations issues aren’t yet clear, Peterson said he wouldn’t think of suing the University over the matter. “(University officials) could have sat me, (the student) and the dorm director down and just talked for a while,” he said. “This case would have been so expensive financially and emotionally, it was better to resolve it in my own heart.”
Rotenberg said because the Supreme Court ruling is so new, issues of retroactivity and statute of limitations questions still need to be looked at.