FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Administration Silenced Professors Who Questioned Light Sanctions and
Refuses to Alert Other Students Currently Exposed to Attacker
TAMPA, FL — A graduate student at the University of South Florida (USF) is being forced to have regular contact with the fellow classmate that sexually assaulted her, a clear violation of the victim’s Title IX protections, according to a lawsuit filed today. The school’s actions come even after the results of its own investigation found evidence of non-consensual intercourse and the victim’s attacker accepted responsibility and referred to himself as “a monster.” Furthermore, USF administrators sought to silence the ongoing concerns raised by school professors over the school’s handling of the situation. This is at least the third known instance of the University of South Florida failing to protect its students’ Title IX rights and the school is currently under federal investigation for the first two incidents.
The lawsuit filed today was brought by USF graduate student Samantha Garrett, who made the brave decision to use her name in the public filing despite being the victim of a sex crime. Garrett is pursuing her doctoral, having already earned both a Bachelors and Master’s degree in that field. Her attacker, identified as Andrew Thurston, is a USF classmate pursuing the same doctoral degree. He previously spent four years as an Infantryman in the United States Marine Corps.
In blatant and direct contradiction of its Title IX responsibilities, the University of South Florida continues to force Samantha Garrett either to endure the sexually harassing and hostile atmosphere of her rapist’s presence, or to forego, and therefore lose access herself to, the education opportunities and benefits of her doctoral program. As a result, she has experienced a steep decline in her mental health and her ability to complete coursework, having had to withdraw from three.
Signed into law in 1972, Title IX bars sex discrimination, including sexual assault and/or sexual harassment, at any federally-funded education program. The University of South Florida is a federally-funded institution located in Tampa, Florida. According to the Tampa Bay Times, it is one of 255 colleges and universities nationwide under investigation for potential mishandling of campus sexual violence cases. Of the more than 350 Title IX investigations open as of the beginning of this month, at least 13 are at Florida universities and at least two of those are at USF.
On the evening of November 12, 2016 and into the following morning, Thurston forced himself sexually on Ms. Garrett, despite her repeated and verbal requests that he stop, leaving her bruised and bleeding. In the immediate aftermath, he admitted to the attacks via direct communication with Garrett, claiming to be “sorry” and referring to himself as a “monster” and “bad person” for what he did.
Garrett reported the incident to a professor just a few weeks later and, on December 5, that professor filed a report with USF Title IX officials and an investigation into the incident commenced. On December 6, USF sent Garret a “Title IX initial contact letter” that pledged to support her well-being and stop future harassment. In March of this year, the USF Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities issued notice that, as a result of the investigation, Thurston was formally charged with violating USF’s Code of Conduct related to non-consensual sexual intercourse and non-consensual sexual contact.
While the investigation itself appears to have been handled appropriately, the sanctions that USF recommended for Thurston’s offense were unduly light, given the circumstances: he was given deferred suspension (meaning not one day of classes missed); ordered to attend two meetings with the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities and “ask[ed]” to refrain from contacting Garrett.
Despite the “no contact” request, USF permitted Thurston to have regular direct contact with his victim over her strenuous and repeated objections. Specifically, Thurston was permitted to attend the same classes as his victim (as well as those in which she worked as a Teaching Assistant), maintain an office in the same building as her office and even park in the same parking lot.
Garrett has and continues to express the repeated and specific concern that the sanctions are insufficient to provide her with necessary mental health comfort and safety, as mandated by Title IX, such that she could safely and comfortably participate in educational opportunities and meet the requirements of her degree program. To this day, she is often exposed to her rapist and frequently must avoid campus because of Thurston’s unrestricted access.
The lawsuit also details the USF administration’s effort to illegally silence the ongoing concerns raised by professors that the sanctions and restrictions imposed on Thurston are inadequate to eliminate the sexually harassing and hostile environment to which Garrett is subjected. One professor confirmed in writing that an attempt “to get increased punishments” was rejected and noted a concern of “potentially get[ting] … in trouble.”
USF also continues to allow Thurston to teach undergraduate students and conduct private meeting with individual students, despite both his admission to and the University’s finding that he sexually assaulted a fellow student. University officials have refused to notify Thurston’s students about his conduct and have actively discouraged Ms. Garrett from doing so either.
The complaint was filed in the United States District Court of Middle District of Florida. Garrett is seeking to force the University to comply with Title IX protections, as well as damages to help with treatment for her declining mental health.
For media inquiries, please contact Denise Luu at 626.382.6217 or send an email.
About Cohen Milstein
Founded in 1969, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC is a national leader in plaintiff class action lawsuits and litigation. As one of the premier firms in the country handling major complex cases, Cohen Milstein, with 90 attorneys, has offices in Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Denver, Colo., and Raleigh, N.C. For more information, visit http://www.cohenmilstein.com or call (561) 515-1400.