Tennessee reaches settlement in sexual assault lawsuit

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Tennessee will pay out a total of $2.48 to six plaintiffs. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)
Tennessee will pay out a total of $2.48 to six plaintiffs. (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

 

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville has reached a financial settlement in a sexual assault lawsuit levied against the school by eight plaintiffs.

According to The Tennessean, the settlement will pay eight young women a total of $2.48 million, including attorney fees. The cost will be split between the university’s “central administration and the athletics department.”

The suit alleged that the university “created a student culture that enables sexual assaults by student-athletes, especially football players, and then uses an unusual, legalistic adjudication process that is biased against victims who step forward.” The lawsuit also said the university violated Title IX laws.

In the settlement, the university agreed to appoint an independent commission to review the way the school (including all UT campuses) responds to allegations of sexual assaults. However, UT did not admit to “guilt, negligence or unlawful acts” in the settlement, the Tennessean reported.

As a result of the settlement, the women involved in the case agreed to drop two 2015 complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, The Tennessean reported.

“My clients and I are dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice and signed the settlement agreement,” David Randolph Smith, the attorney representing the eight women, said in a statement. “We are satisfied that, while universities everywhere struggle with these issues, the University of Tennessee has made significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases. My clients and I are also convinced that the University’s leadership is truly committed to continue its exemplary efforts to create a model as it relates to sexual misconduct.

“If we all can look ahead,” Smith said, “and imagine our state’s flagship university as a leader in awareness, education, support and aggressive response to these issues, this lawsuit and the resulting outcome would have contributed in a small way to the safety, well-being and hopeful futures of many young people who from time to time call the University of Tennessee home.”

The original complaint was filed Feb. 9 by six women accused five Tennessee athletes of sexual assault. Two other plaintiffs were added later in February, both oh whom accused two other football players of sexual assault. Two of the athletes accused, former Vols football players A.J. Johnson and Mike Williams, are facing charges. Both pleaded not guilty to rape charges.

Additionally, the plaintiffs alleged, several athletes named in the suit were allowed to remain on campus or move on to another school despite the findings of on-campus investigations.

From The Tennessean:

Five of the implicated athletes and one nonathlete named in the federal lawsuit were found by the university’s own internal investigation to have committed sexual assaults, but were allowed to remain on campus, graduate or transfer to other schools while the sexual assault investigations continued, in some cases for years, according to the plaintiffs.

In the case involving Johnson and Williams, phone records showed that Vols head coach Butch Jones spoke with the Knoxville police chief multiple times the day the allegations surfaced. After it was determined that those calls, which Knoxville PD called “courtesy notifications,” could be a violation of state law, the local police said it would put a stop to the “long-standing practice.”

“In the interest of transparency and to alleviate any appearance of conflict of interest, we have changed the previous practice, to ensure that investigators focus without hindrance on finding the facts and bringing justice to victims of crime,” a Knoxville PD spokesperson said in an April statement. “Going forward, in any incident involving a student at the University, KPD will make formal notification only to UT law enforcement, as required by state law and as part of our ongoing interdepartmental cooperation.”

In a separate incident involving defensive lineman Alexis Johnson, Jones is alleged to have scolded a player who the alleged victim, Jane Doe IV, said helped her. The lawsuit said Jones referred to the player, receiver Drae Bowles, as a “traitor.” Jones denied the accusation.

“The assertion that I ever attempted to belittle or demean a young man for taking action to help another person is absolutely false,” Jones said in a statement. 

Bowles also said in a sworn affidavit that he was assaulted by a former teammate and intimidated by two others for helping the woman. Bowles has since transferred to UT-Chattanooga.

In a release, Tennessee said it spent $220,000 on its defense and estimated sending the case to trial would have cost an additional $5.5 million.

“No university will be able to prevent every incident of students, faculty or staff making bad judgments,” said Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek. “Like many institutions we are not perfect, but our goal is to continue to be the best we can be at creating awareness, educating, and preventing discrimination and abuse in any form, and to continue to be equally prepared when it does happen and to deal with it promptly, sensitively, fairly and effectively. We’ve come a long way in recent years, and we are working every day to be even better. Our first priority is the safety and well-being of every member of our University community.”

For more Tennessee news, visit VolQuest.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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