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  1. Education

Lawsuit: USF ignored student's fears after she alleged sexual assault

A doctoral student in psychology is suing the University of South Florida board of trustees for what she calls Title IX violations in the aftermath of a 2016 sexual assault. [ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times]
Published Nov. 30, 2017

TAMPA — Last November, a psychology student named Samantha Garrett told a professor at the University of South Florida that her classmate had raped her, leaving her bruised and bleeding.

The gears of the university's student conduct system began turning. A university investigator soon found her classmate "responsible" for non-consensual sex. Instead of a formal hearing, he chose to accept sanctions.

This is where, in Garrett's estimation, USF's actions began to go horribly wrong.

On Thursday, the 26-year-old doctoral student filed a federal lawsuit against USF, accusing the university of empowering the man she calls her rapist while destroying her own sense of safety.

She says that USF meted out punishments so weak, she has been forced to come into contact with him. Despite her pleas for help, Garrett says this student has been allowed to share the same parking lot, the same building, even the same classrooms.

In the lawsuit, Garrett contends that she has suffered panic attacks trying to endure his presence, forcing her to make sacrifices, such as withdrawing from three classes.

At one point, USF found Garrett guilty of a Student Code of Conduct violation, in what the lawsuit says was an attempt at retaliation for her complaints.

All of this, the lawsuit says, amounts to clear violations of the federal nondiscrimination law known as Title IX.

• • •

Garrett's lawsuit was filed Thursday against the USF board of trustees in the Middle District of Florida.

"USF strives to be a campus that leads the way in promoting a culture where sexual violence is not tolerated," university spokeswoman Lara Wade wrote in an email. She said the school remains proactive in providing resources, and that anyone with "concerns about an unhealthy campus environment should feel comfortable reporting those."

She also said that Garrett had had the chance to appeal for stronger restrictions, but withdrew her request.

USF is already under two federal investigations related to potential mishandling of campus sexual violence cases, along with about 255 universities nationwide.

RELATED: New federal investigation targets USF handling of sexual violence case

Garrett is being represented by Michael Dolce of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a national firm that deals in Title IX protections.

Dolce disputed USF's comment about Garrett's appeal. He said USF encouraged her to withdraw it, only to deny later requests for help.

Dolce is also representing Garrett as she seeks a restraining order against her classmate Andrew "AJ" Thurston, 30, in Hillsborough County Court.

Thurston is not a defendant in the new suit. His Tampa-based attorney, Anthony Biago Rickman, vehemently denied Garrett's allegations, calling them "a complete fabrication."

Rickman said that law enforcement agencies and the state attorney's office never pursued charges, and that "lovey-dovey" texts show Garrett kept up with Thurston for weeks.

"It's inappropriate calling my client a rapist in a filing, to use language like that when it's unfounded," Rickman said.

He said Thurston hasn't seen or spoken to Garrett since she made her allegation.

"There's no evidence of her being in a hostile environment," he said.

Title IX protects students at federally funded institutions from sex discrimination, including sexual misconduct. Forcing Garrett to choose between enduring a hostile atmosphere or giving up educational opportunities violates Title IX, the suit says.

A news release said she seeks damages for "her declining mental health," and that she wants USF to follow Title IX rules.

• • •

Garrett came to USF in fall 2015 for its tight-knit doctoral program in industrial-organizational psychology. She and Thurston, a former Marine, became friends.

On Nov. 12, 2016, Garrett visited Thurston's apartment. The lawsuit says that Thurston took off Garrett's clothes and forcing her into sex acts, even as she demanded him to "stop." It says he didn't let her leave until morning.

He later messaged her to say he was sorry, calling himself a "monster," the suit says. It says he told her he would leave USF.

Later that month, when Thurston learned that Garrett planned to report the incident to USF, he tried to "discredit" her, the suit says. It says he told police that Garrett was threatening suicide. She was picked up by officers and released.

In the weeks after the assault, the suit says, Garrett lost her grip on her studies. She cried often and withdrew from peers.

In December, she approached a professor, who relayed Garrett's account to USF.

A USF investigator reviewed evidence and deemed Thurston "responsible" for violating the Student Code of Conduct for "non-consensual intercourse and non-consensual sexual contact," leading to formal school charges in March.

Thurston could then request a hearing or accept sanctions, which the lawsuit says were: a deferred suspension through May 4, 2018, allowing him to continue his studies with full access to campus; a couple of meetings; and a request "to refrain from making contact" with Garrett.

Thurston accepted the sanctions, though his attorney said this doesn't equate to an admission of responsibility.

The suit says those sanctions weren't upheld, and that despite Garrett's "strenuous and repeated objections," the two came into "regular contact."

As teaching assistants, they had offices in the same building. Thurston was allowed to walk into classrooms where Garrett was working, the suit says. He was permitted to attend speaker sessions and get-togethers in their small department, including those required of Garrett.

The suit says that USF's senior deputy Title IX coordinator, Crystal Coombes, described this contact as "inconsequential."

• • •

Garrett told USF officials that she still felt unsafe. She said she wanted Thurston barred from campus until she finished her PhD — or at least from the same parking lot and building.

She wrote to USF of Thurston's "deliberate, orchestrated" attempts to approach her. Thurston's attorney says no contact was ever made.

The suit says USF officials tried to give Thurston equal access, but at the expense of driving Garrett away — even telling her to consider withdrawing from USF.

Meanwhile, the suit says, USF "actively rejected" concerns from professors who sounded alarms and sought greater punishments.

"It would be contrary to the university's values for anyone to encourage community members to remain silent on these issues," USF's Lara Wade said.

In June, the lawsuit says, USF charged Garrett with violating the Student Code of Conduct after she made an "allegedly illegal" recording of a meeting. In August, USF found her guilty.

The lawsuit calls this retaliation, and says USF threatened Garrett with sanctions more severe than Thurston's, such as fines. The actual punishment she received is unclear.

In the end, the suit says, USF students are left with serious reasons to distrust the school's promises of "zero tolerance."

USF President Judy Genshaft sent a mass email Thursday evening, reiterating the complexity of sexual assault cases and her concern for all involved.

"I want to assure you that no member of the campus community is ever silenced in these matters," she said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com.

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