Lawsuit over UW’s handling of sexual assault in pre-college program dismissed

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By Anthony Trombi

Last year, a UW-Madison pre-college program participant filed a federal lawsuit against the university for its response to sexual assault allegations among summer program members. That lawsuit was dismissed this summer, according to court records and new reporting by the Wisconsin State Journal.

U.S. District Judge William Conley found “the university’s response to the participant’s complaints failed to amount to deliberate indifference as required under Title IX.” 

The lawsuit revolved around an sexual assault that took place in 2018 during the school’s Precollege Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE) — a pre-college program with the mission of boosting “college attainment and degree completion” for first-generation 8th-grade students or 8th-grade students from low-income families.

The former PEOPLE participant and survivor of sexual assault attended the program during the summers of 2017 and 2018. The victim sued UW-Madison in the federal court, claiming employees had not handled the assault and harassment in a proper manner, according to court records. 

This allegation refers to multiple instances of harassment, as one female program participant allegedly pinned down and groped another female program participant. 

The perpetrator was asked to leave the PEOPLE program after a UWPD investigation, which led to charges of fourth-degree sexual assault from the office of the Dane County District Attorney.

According to The Wisconsin State Journal, program leaders claimed to have investigated the allegations on their own, but the participant’s mother withdrew her from the program before any action occurred from the program itself. 

A PEOPLE program coordinator told the police that the accused perpetrator had a history of sexual harassment and inappropriate touching from the previous summer. 

The program involved in the lawsuit is just one of the 150 plus pre-college program opportunities offered through the university. Collectively, the programs allow up to 40,000 students — from kindergarteners to high school seniors — to come to the UW campus and expand educational opportunities and experiences.

But other pre-college programs on the campus have been forced to deal with issues of misconduct in the past as well. 

An incidence of alleged sexual misconduct occurred on July 20, 2017, involving two individuals in the UW’s Business Emerging Leaders program. According to a police report, a female program participant (age 17) and a male mentor (age 19) engaged in consensual sex — this occurred in a university residence hall.

BEL staff members required the mentor to leave building premises before calling the police after he had mentioned the 17-year-old participant was only dreaming about their interactions. 

According to a report, the male was not charged with any crime but he cultivated a close relationship with the victim through messaging apps. 

The Dane County District Attorney’s Office did not charge the mentor due to proof of consent; however, the UW-Madison Police Department (UWPD) suggested a lawsuit.

Rachel Brooks, assistant BEL director at the time, was dismissed during the same summer due to staffing and budget complications. 

Officials said that Brooks demonstrated “poor financial responsibility” by taking mentors out on expensive meals despite having meal cards for dining halls and allowing a graduate student to drive a state vehicle without authorization.  

The Wisconsin State Journal further reports that Brooks decided to start her own investigation without any police interaction on the night of the assault allegation. Staff on the night of the assault allegation called Brooks over ten times in just two hours. The program was understaffed and Brooks “ran the program by default because everyone left,” she said to the Wisconsin State Journal. 

Court records show that the school struck around a $15,000 settlement — a third went to her lawyer — for Brooks’ resignation. After the settlement, her dismissal was removed from her personnel file.

Parents of program members also received a letter from Russ Coff — the then Acting Dean at the Wisconsin School of Business — which vaguely outlined the incident and aimed to ensure families of “participant safety and integrity in our program.” 

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