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Ex-student says Emerson mishandled rape investigation

A former Emerson College student is accusing the school of mishandling her sexual assault case, contending that the investigation caused intense emotional damage that led her to drop out and seek medical help, according to a federal lawsuit.

The suit, filed last Friday in US District Court in Springfield, says school officials failed to interview one of the victim’s roommates and did not tell her how long the investigation into her rape allegations would take, among other irregularities.

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An initial hearing by Emerson officials early last year held the fellow student who had been accused of rape not responsible, but administrators reversed their decision upon appeal and expelled him.

The lawsuit comes at a time when colleges across the country are being scrutinized for their handling of sexual assault cases. Emerson is one of nine Massachusetts universities and colleges the US Department of Education is investigating over their treatment of such cases.

Last October, several students, including the plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jillian Doherty, filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. They allege Emerson downplayed their concerns and inadequately investigated at least two cases.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for Emerson, Andrew Tiedemann, said in a prepared statement that the school provided sufficient support to Doherty, contrary to what the lawsuit alleges.

“The college will continue to take the steps necessary to address this societal problem that exists on all college campuses as well as in the greater community,” he said.

Unlike complaints filed with the Department of Education, civil lawsuits can result in compensation for victims and put pressure on universities to tackle sexual assault, said David Angueira, the attorney for Doherty, who has spoken publicly about her assault.

“The message is that things have to change,” he said. “You have to address these issues and improve your programs.”

The lawsuit asks for an unspecified amount of damages to cover tuition and frequent hospital stays, as well as for emotional distress endured during the school’s investigation.

It also contends that the school did not do enough to raise awareness about sexual assault and resources on campus, leading to Doherty’s initial hesitance to report the rape. And the lawsuit says Emerson refused to accommodate her when she requested to do classwork at home because of depression and anxiety issues.

The rape occurred in April 2012 in the suspect’s dorm room, after he messaged Doherty on Facebook to come over, according to the lawsuit.

Both had been drinking when they began having consensual sex. At one point, the man asked if he could perform anal sex, but Doherty refused, according to the lawsuit. He choked her and forcefully penetrated her as she pleaded for him to stop.

After the male student passed out, Doherty put her clothes on quietly to leave. The suspect’s roommate came in and told investigators he saw an “uncomfortable” look on Doherty’s face, according to the lawsuit.

It wasn’t until a year after the alleged attack that Doherty filed a complaint with administrators. She was ashamed and feared she might be blamed because she had been drinking, Angueira said.

The man was found not responsible during the initial review because, according to the school, both students admitted to being intoxicated during the encounter and Doherty’s statement didn’t match with one she gave to a roommate, the lawsuit says.

Doherty appealed the decision last summer, and the male student was found responsible and expelled in a second hearing. He has never been criminally charged, and the school, following federal privacy guidelines, has not identified him.

The lawsuit alleges that the Emerson official in charge of the investigation admitted during the appeal that he initially did not have enough training on how to handle such allegations.

Doherty’s grades slipped as she struggled with depression stemming from the attack and the investigation, her attorney said. She began an outpatient treatment program at Arbour Hospital, going in and out of the hospital.

Another female student who was part of the federal complaint from last year told the Globe at the time that Emerson took months to begin investigating her case and then found the suspect not responsible.

The new lawsuit alleges that by underreporting sexual assaults, the school also violated the Clery Act, a federal law requiring colleges to publish a log of crime statistics.

Doherty dropped out of Emerson this spring, just before completing her junior year, Angueira said. He said she is taking time to heal and figure out what to do next.

Oliver Ortega can be reached at oliver.ortega@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ByOliverOrtega.
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