Swimmer's death casts light on campus sex assaults

Parents are suing the University of Missouri and its athletic department, saying they should have investigated her alleged rape by three football players
Associated Press
Jan 30, 2014


The case of a former University of Missouri swimmer who said she was raped in an episode that her parents say led to her suicide underscores the problems higher education institutions in the U.S. face in cracking down on sexual assaults.

The parents of Sasha Menu Courey say the university and its athletics department by now should have investigated her alleged off-campus rape by as many as three football players in February 2010.

University leaders say they didn't learn about the purported attack until after Menu Courey, a Canadian, committed suicide 16 months later. They also said they followed the letter of the law because they didn't have specific knowledge of the attack and no victim to interview.

Schools nationwide are spending more time and money fighting campus rape in response to stricter federal enforcement of gender discrimination laws under Title IX. The White House has called it a public health epidemic, and President Barack Obama last week announced the formation of a new task force on college sex assault, citing statistics that show 1 in 5 female students are assaulted while in college, but only 1 in 8 victims report attacks.

But balancing the needs of individual students — including those who report attacks but don't want a criminal investigation — with protecting the larger community is vexing for many schools.

Colleges and universities are also required to report campus crimes to the federal government under a 1990 law known as the Clery Act.

At least 50 schools have bolstered their efforts in recent years. Complaints of Title IX violations related to sexual violence are also increasing, a sign Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, attributes to new vigilance on campus.

"Obviously, there are all too many that still need prompting," she said.

Earlier this week, Lhamon's department announced an investigation of Penn State University's handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints amid the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal. The University of Colorado and California State University-Fresno have been ordered by civil courts to pay millions for Title IX violations asserted in victim lawsuits.

The University of Missouri's efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus are extensive. A campus equity office led by a lawyer oversees compliance with Title IX, the federal law more commonly known for ensuring equal participation by women in college sports but also has broader discrimination protections. There also is counseling and help available through the campus women's center and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center.

Students who eschew legal intervention can still seek a campus disciplinary hearing. And the university can also help students switch dorms or class schedules or bar contact outright.

Menu Courey, 20, killed herself in June 2011 in a Boston psychiatric hospital soon after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and two months after an earlier suicide attempt.

"There are many resources out there, but there's not really any (sense) that she was provided with those resources," said Zachary Wilson, development director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. "It's difficult for sexual assault survivors to go at it alone."

Missouri didn't immediately investigate the death of Menu Courey, who by then had withdrawn from classes at the university's urging and lost her financial aid. The school said in a statement Tuesday that a 2012 Columbia Daily Tribune article about Menu Courey's suicide briefly alluded to the alleged assault, but didn't meet the legal standard that the school "reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment."

The school says Menu Courey's parents ignored its request for more information a year ago after it discovered an online chat transcript with a campus rape counselor in which Menu Courey mentioned an earlier attack.

Missouri initially responded to an ESPN story about the swimmer by defending its handling of the case while criticizing the news organization's "skewed and flawed reporting." But soon after, the university said it was turning over information on the case to Columbia police, since the alleged attack happened off-campus.

A police investigation is underway, and University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe wants the university's governing board to pay for an independent legal review of how officials handled the situation. The Board of Curators is expected to consider that request at its regular meeting on Wednesday.

Wolfe declined to address questions ahead of the meeting when asked about specific concerns with the university's response. But he did say the university was committed to bolstering its mental health services. He also noted that his own daughter is a first-year college athlete.

"One of our students is dead," Wolfe said. "Our goal is to help the Sashas of the world."

He said outside investigators won't have subpoena powers or the other investigative tools of law enforcement, but that they wouldn't "run into any walls."

Other sexual assault cases have been linked to Missouri's athletic department. Former running back Derrick Washington was convicted in 2010 of sexually assaulting a tutor in her sleep, and basketball player Michael Dixon transferred in 2012 after two sex assault claims against him went public, though he was never charged.

In suburban Toronto, Mike Menu and his wife Lynn Courey have channeled their grief into a mental health foundation named in their daughter's memory. They want accountability from Missouri, though Menu said the couple hasn't hired an attorney and isn't "looking for money."

"We just want to make sure that changes are made," Mike Menu said. "We need more than Band-Aids. We need a transformation."


Truth or Dare

Rapes/sexual assault of women, children and yes even men take place every day at an alarming rate. On college campuses, within our military, in the homes and structures of folks we feel we should be able to trust with our children. The even sicker part, not a whole lot is being done to bring this to the attention of people! Why? Example; the letter in todays forum, the outcry of such disgust and filth regarding an OHSP Trooper being reported within the pages of the SR! To each his own, but right there is just a part of the problem of victimization and re-victimization, ignorance and the choice to just deny it's going on! That's why it continues! That and the fact that far too many are willing to cover for abusers and evidently their own propensity to allow "America's dark secret" to go on. Hell, I won't even touch on the new topic of the new slavery of Human/Sex Trafficking. The letter writer while living in P.C., must be totally ignorant of the Human Trafficking going on throughout our State, country, let alone the fact that I do believe Toledo is ranked right up there in the top 10, if not being #6! Not even an hours drive away!

Awful lot of folks coming up missing from the east Cleveland area, men, woman, children. What, you think they're all runaways, they vanished into thin air? Sick, callous and complete INDIFFERENCE, that's why it continues!

I feel it's important to report on such things within these pages, because that is our reality! Oh, if you need to know whose reality, one who understands what it's like to be sexually abused as a very young child, over a period of years, and didn't choose when faced with the reality of it all, to take her own life. May this family be comforted and people start stepping out and helping! Refusing to is what's disturbing and disgusting!