Can Univ. of Tennessee become a model for handling sexual assault?

University officials say the $2.48-million settlement does not amount to 'admitting guilt, negligence or unlawful acts' but that settling was 'the right thing to do.'

Wade Payne/AP/File
Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty (12) throws from the end zone during a 2013 NCAA college football game against Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn. The University of Tennessee has agreed to pay $2.48 million to settle allegations that the school failed to investigate and punish student athletes accused of sexual misconduct.

The University of Tennessee is paying $2.48 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that the school violated Title IX regulations and created a "hostile sexual environment" on campus by not properly investigating and punishing student athletes accused of sexual assault. 

The lawsuit, filed by eight unidentified women in February, referenced cases of player misconduct going back as far as 1995, including a sexual harassment complaint made in 1996 involving retired National Football League quarterback Peyton Manning, who played for Tennessee at the time. 

The complaint also included a statement from former Tennessee football player Drae Bowles, who claimed he was attacked by teammates and told by football coach Lyle Allen "Butch" Jones that he had "betrayed the team" after assisting a woman who said she'd been raped by two of his fellow players. Coach Jones denied this allegation.

The settlement comes at a time when many universities have begun to take steps to combat sexual assault on campus, especially as many have come under scrutiny for their handling of such cases. On Sunday, White House officials announced that President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will not visit institutions whose leaders are not serious about pursuing sexual assault allegations. 

In a press release Tuesday, David Randolph Smith, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said that 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," Mr. Smith said. 

Tennessee chancellor Jimmy Cheek said in a statement that he will soon announce a new series of Title IX-related initiatives on campus, including additional support and budgeting specifically in areas related to sexual assault, student conduct, education programming, and student well-being. 

At the same time, university President Joe DiPietro said an independent commission would be appointed to review existing programs and make recommendations for improvement. 

"No university will be able to prevent every incident of students, faculty or staff making bad judgments," Mr. Cheek said. "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."

The changes are reflective of a greater shift in public attitudes regarding sexual assault in the United States, thanks to the work of activists and heightened visibility of victims. As The Christian Science Monitor's Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported last month:

Think of it as the flip side of the movements to decriminalize actions such as possession of marijuana and to rely less on incarceration for nonviolent offenses, particularly among juveniles. The tough-on-crime policies that resulted in overcrowded prisons have become widely seen as discriminatory against people of color. But when it comes to rape, much of the public may now side with activists who have long pointed out that not only male privilege, but white privilege, athletes’ privilege, and rich people’s privilege are keeping too many criminals from serving sentences that fit their crimes.

Raja Jubran, vice chair of the Tennessee Board of Trustees, said that "regardless of the merits of the case," settling was "the right thing to do from a compassionate perspective for the young women involved and from a reputation perspective for the institution."

The press release noted that the University of Tennessee "is not admitting guilt, negligence or unlawful acts" as part of the settlement. But university leaders acknowledge that the school has room for improvement when it comes to its handling of sexual assault allegations. 

"We've come a long way in recent years, and we are working every day to be even better," Cheek said. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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