Independent report criticizes MU’s response to alleged sexual assault of swimmer Sasha Menu Courey

04/11/2014 8:49 PM

04/11/2014 8:49 PM

The parents of former Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey are satisfied with an independent counsel’s report released Friday that is critical of the university’s handling of their daughter’s alleged sexual assault.

“I’m finally relieved,” Sasha’s mother, Lynn Courey, said by phone from Toronto. “It’s been a very long three months. It really brought us back to three years ago when everything started with Sasha.”

Menu Courey sought on-campus treatment after an alleged sexual assault by members of the Missouri football team in February 2010, but the incident was not reported because of privacy laws. She committed suicide in June 2011 and the allegation became public in 2012 after her parents read about it posthumously in her journal.

Now, Lynn Courey and Mike Menu hope that Sasha’s legacy will strengthen resources available for sexual assault victims and help prevent similar tragedies.

“I’m really hoping that Sasha’s legacy is the catalyst in the transformation for how the University (of Missouri) will become a model for all other universities and their support system for victims,” Lynn Courey said. “Sasha was saying the system failed her (in her journal) and we believe, if you look at the report, it’s suggesting a lot of changes.

“There were maybe a lot of gaps in their policies and some people made mistakes, but now they are aware of it. We really hope that Sasha’s legacy now is to encourage the university — not just Mizzou, but all the universities — to transform the way they serve and protect their students and staff.”

The report, which was commissioned by the University of Missouri System’s Board of Curators in February and conducted by the Dowd Bennett Law Firm of Clayton, Mo., contained four major findings, most notably:

• MU did not violate the law, but found “with certainty” that the school “acted inconsistently with the Department of Education’s guidance about the requirements of Title IX” regarding the reporting and investigation of sexual assault.

• MU should have launched an investigation in November 2012 after university officials, during the course of fulfilling a public-records request to Menu Courey’s parents after her death, uncovered two emails from Menu Courey referencing her sexual assault allegation.

University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe again vowed sweeping changes, including the recently completed inventory of resources and policies at each of the system’s four campuses, following the release of the report Friday during the curators’ meeting in Rolla, Mo.

“We didn’t have any employees that acted in bad faith or tried to cover something up,” Wolfe said during a news conference. “The misstep or mistake that was made was not having a clear policy of reporting and investigation as well as the training of all our employees. So, that is the issue and I will take complete responsibility for that personally.”

He continued, “Together with our sexual assault and mental health services task force and the findings of the independent counsel’s report, we are performing a major self-assessment of the training, resources and policies of the University of Missouri System in these areas.”

The report said MU officials had enough information on Nov. 20, 2012, to investigate Menu Courey’s alleged sexual assault, as required by Title IX, and that “the Title IX coordinator should have been notified of the facts, an investigation should have been conducted at that time, and the police department should have been notified.”

MU sent a letter to Menu Courey’s parents asking if they wished for an investigation, but the university didn’t follow up.

“The assistant general counsel (Paul Maguffee) did not notify the Title IX coordinator,” said Edward Dowd Jr., who led the independent investigation. “He said at that time — he knows now, but at that time — he didn’t even know there was a Title IX coordinator.”

Instead, MU did not open an investigation or turn over any information to Columbia police until 14 months later, when Menu Courey’s case became the subject of an segment for ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” Columbia police said Friday that their criminal investigation into the alleged sexual assault is ongoing.

“This report sets out in stark terms that the University must do better,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat. “Clearly the University wanted the unvarnished truth about their shortcomings, which is laudable. Now it’s time to get to work and make the University a model for victim support and accountability for thorough investigations.”

The independent counsel report also concludes that MU lacked adequate policies to direct employees how to handle information about an alleged sexual assault and the procedures to ensure Title IX compliance.

According to the report, the lack of proper guidance and training of employees “appears to have contributed in large part to the University’s failure … to conduct an appropriate inquiry when University officials had information indicating that Sasha Menu Courey had been sexually assaulted.”

Additionally, the report says a Feburary 2012 story in the Columbia Daily Tribune, which circulated among MU athletic department staff and referenced an entry in Menu Courey’s journal about the alleged assault, should have been forwarded to the Title IX coordinator for review and triggered an inquiry.

Missouri chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said the Title IX coordinator at Missouri is not a full-time position, but “we’re reviewing that right now with the intention of being able to move them to a full-time position,” he said.

Loftin, who started his position Feb. 1, also said there will be an organizational restructuring to allow him more direct contact with the Title IX coordinator.

There was no finding in the report that non-medical personnel at MU knew about the alleged rape before Menu Courey committed suicide. The report acknowledges that Menu Courey told multiple medical personnel about the incident, but MU couldn’t have acted on that information because medical professionals “are bound by confidentiality rules.”

The independent investigation wasn’t able to reach a definitive conclusion about the substance of a phone call between Menu Courey and former MU academic adviser Meghan Anderson on May 12, 2011.

In a journal entry discovered posthumously by her parents, Menu Courey wrote that she told Anderson about the alleged assault during the phone call.

Anderson denied that she was told of the assault and the report concludes that, because she took the phone call while at a restaurant “it is possible that either because of miscommunication or an inability to hear everything, there was an unintentional disconnect between what Sasha Menu Courey said and what Meghan Anderson heard during the call.”

If Anderson was told of the alleged assault, she had a clear obligation to report it, the report said.

Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said he hasn’t had a chance to read the report, but that he did listen to the news conference.

“It would seem to me … that Dowd Bennett did a very good job and thorough review,” Alden said. “From what I heard on the press conference, there are probably going to be a number of things that all of us can take from that to learn and to be able to grow.”

Wolfe, who called Menu Courey’s parents to discuss the report after the news conference, said he’s already taken steps to address gaps in the university system’s policies by issuing an executive order Wednesday.

“It became clear to us that we need a stronger, more transparent policy in terms of sexual harassment reporting by employees,” Wolfe said. “My order mandates that all university employees have obligations to report sexual harassment or sexual assault allegations in which the alleged victim is a student to the appropriate Title IX coordinator.”

Menu Courey’s parents will be watching to see how many more changes MU makes to avoid a similar tragedy.

“I read all the report and I’m satisfied with the fairness of the report,” Mike Menu said. “We accept the results of the report and think it’s a fair assessment of what happened and the areas in which the university could be improved. We’re looking forward to the next step, which is the university taking a look at that and seeing what changes they can make.”

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