First, she says, the repeated episodes of sexual harassment at college led her to hide under her dorm room bed. Eventually they drove her off campus.
Last spring, not long after she quit school and moved back in with her family, her mother found her sprawled on the floor, court documents say.
The female student survived the attempted suicide but remains under psychological care.
Now, she and her mother have sued Lees-McRae College and four of its staff members, accusing them of fumbling her sexual-harassment complaint and allowing her tormenters to repeatedly violate a no-contact order.
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Some of the allegations are familiar ones in the widening legal battlefield over how college and universities arbitrate the social and sexual interactions of their male and female students.
But in this case, the claims of wrongdoing have been aimed at the tiny Banner Elk college that was founded on the goal of meeting the educational and social needs of mountain women.
She already had been diagnosed with social anxiety and other psychological issues when she enrolled. Now, the lawsuit directly links her attempted suicide to what she says was Lees-McRae’s repeated failure to respond to her pleas for help.
“This is a situation where the college should have known that they needed to protect my client,” says Durham attorney Kerry Sutton. “Her family chose that university after they were assured the campus would be sensitive to her needs. We contend that they were unwilling or unable to fulfill that obligation.”
The Observer doesn’t identify persons who say they have been sexually assaulted or harassed. Sutton says her client, who was hospitalized after her attempted suicide, is still recovering from her campus experiences.
Founded in 1900, Lees-McRea now has a co-ed enrollment of about 1,000 students. Raleigh attorney Katie Hartzog said Tuesday the college would not comment on a lawsuit it had not yet seen.
“The welfare and well being of students is at the center of everything (school administrators) do,” Hartzog said in an emailed statement. “Lees-McRae College endeavors to treat every concern with care and attention, considering all points of view in any dispute between students in a fair manner.”
She said the school “regrets any occasion in which a student feels unsatisfied with an outcome.”
In the Lees-McRae case, which surfaced this week, the controversy also carried the risk of heightening racial tensions on campus, the lawsuit says. The female accuser was white; one of her alleged harassers, according to the lawsuit, was African American and a prominent male athlete.
Some of the allegations included in the lawsuit describe outlandish behavior.
In one instance, a faculty member who was part of the committee ruling on the female student’s complaint mused during a break with another member over how “liquor and loose women” made for a good weekend, among other sexualized remarks.
“These patently offensive, sexual and inappropriate comments,” were made within the earshot of the female student and her mother, the lawsuit says.
Another example occurred on the day of the misconduct hearing for the accused male students. Outside the hearing room, according to the complaint, a noisy crowd gathered in the hallway where the accuser at times had to sit.
They “had somehow been provided with knowledge that the private and confidential hearing was taking place,” the lawsuit said, and during breaks they “loudly cheered” for the athlete and the other accused male students.
The female student enrolled at Lees-McRae in 2017 after two years in a community college. Her complaint says the college was fully informed about her social anxiety and other “special needs,” and that she was assigned special housing and access to a school therapist.
About a year ago after a campus event, she was verbally accosted by the male student and some companions, her lawsuit says. She hid in a bathroom while her harassers followed her into a building and continued their lewd comments.
She says she reported the incident to the assistant dean of students, campus security and Banner Elk police. After she filed a formal complaint under Title IX of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits sexual discrimination on campus, the school issued a no-contact order against the athlete.
Two days later, according to the lawsuit, the male student and some of his companions sat down close to her in a school cafeteria, then repeated the behavior that night at dinner.
When the female student and her boyfriend moved to another table, the player and his companions followed. Later that night, the same group followed the female student while she walked across the campus, the complaint says.
Once again, the female student raised concerns with the school, which she says failed to stop the player and his friends from “continuing to intimidate, harass or and/or retaliate.”
In a matter of days, the lawsuit says, the student fell into “a full-blown psychological breakdown,” and began isolating herself in her dorm room, often hiding underneath her bed. Meanwhile, the male student, according to the lawsuit, continued to violate the no-contact order.
On April 25, the hearing committee, which included the four administrators named as defendants in the lawsuit, found the male student “not responsible” for violating the school’s sexual harassment policy. The lawsuit says the decision was at least partially driven by the school’s fear that the case could lead to widespread racial problems on campus.
The female student withdrew from Lees-McRae immediately afterward.
She later appealed the school’s decision in her case. A new hearing was ordered but remains unscheduled. In November, she and her family also filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that the college had violated her Title IX protections.