A lawsuit against the University of Kansas by the parents of a student who was allegedly raped in one of its dorms seeks to break new legal ground.
Unlike other legal actions against universities over their handling of sexual assaults, this one seeks class action status and alleges violations of the state’s consumer protection law.
The suit, filed in Douglas County District Court on March 10 by the parents of Daisy Tackett, a former KU student who says she was raped by an unidentified KU football player, claims that KU misrepresents that its residence halls are safe and secure.
“The reality is that KU's residence halls are unsafe, although KU has consistently and aggressively solicited and procured enrollments through false representations and assurances of safety,” the lawsuit alleges.
The Tacketts’ lawsuit joins a growing list of actions against universities across the country. Almost all of those actions, however, allege violations of Title IX, the federal law that bars sex discrimination in education. Such suits are typically brought by the alleged victims themselves.
In this case, Daisy Tackett’s parents, Florida residents James and Amanda Tackett, filed the lawsuit on behalf of anyone who has enrolled a student at KU in the past three years. (The statute of limitations period for Kansas’ consumer protection law, the Kansas Consumer Protection Act, is three years.) That includes parents and students alike, a class – if certified by the court – that could run to thousands of plaintiffs.
“If you’re paying tuition, what you’re buying here is to keep my kid in a safe place to teach them things,” said Dan Curry, one of the Tacketts’ lawyers. “And they know they’re not getting that service. That fits the Consumer Protection Act.”
Curry says he’s considering filing a separate Title IX lawsuit on behalf of Daisy Tackett, but that will await the outcome of a pending hearing at KU on whether to expel the alleged rapist.
The Tacketts claim that for years KU’s residence halls have been “home to a known, persistent and growing problem of instances of sexual assault.”
They ask the court to order KU to stop stating that its on-campus housing is safe and secure, and to declare that it has violated the Kansas Consumer Protection Act. They also want restitution of tuition, housing costs and other fees.
“What our clients want out of this is some honesty in the way housing is represented at KU,” says Anthony LaCroix, another lawyer for the Tacketts.
KU issued a statement in response to the lawsuit calling its allegations “baseless.”
“This lawsuit inaccurately portrays the environment at the University of Kansas and our ongoing efforts to ensure students are safe and aware of their surroundings,” the statement said.
KU said it regularly publishes its crime statistics, including data on sex offenses, at publicsafety.ku.edu, “and provides robust support services for those who report sexual assault and violence.”
“Additionally, KU goes beyond the minimum requirements of federal law by providing an array of services and resources designed to keep students safe, ranging from educational and bystander intervention programming to campus-wide campaigns to online and in-person training,” the statement said.
A novel approach
Dennis Egan, a Kansas City lawyer who represents plaintiffs in sex discrimination lawsuits and has been practicing law for 40 years, says he has never seen a legal action similar to the one filed by the Tacketts.
“Novel doesn’t mean bad because it could be a good approach, but I’ve not seen that approach,” he says.
Egan says the suit was drafted in a way that makes it fit within the parameters of Kansas’ consumer protection law.
“So my reaction is it looks to me like they found a vehicle to at least get the institution to answer and to provide the information to shed the light of day on (the allegations),” he says.
The Tacketts’ lawsuit was filed just shy of a year after the university received recommendations from a task force appointed by Chancellor Bernadette Gray Little to study the problem of sexual assault on the KU campus.
The task force was designed, according to the university, to “develop more effective solutions for preventing and responding to sexual assault.”
Among the task force’s recommendations:
- Enhance training and prevention programs for all first-year students.
- Modify fraternity and sorority intake practices.
- Establish a standardized protocol for who is required to report sexual assault.
- Increase the availability and visibility of resources as well as provide better education about them.
The university chose to implement 22 of the 27 recommendations.
Sensitivity over sexual violence on the KU campus has grown in the last couple of years as more incidents have been reported. A year and a half ago, an ad hoc group of students took it upon themselves to create a You Tube video called “KU- A Great Place To Be Unsafe.”
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating more than 160 colleges and universities for possible Title IX violations involving alleged sexual violence, according to a database compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education. KU is one of the universities on the list.