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Northwestern University was sued by a student, alleging negligence in its response to an off-campus sexual assault complaint involving a tenured professor. The student said the university failed to properly handle her complaint and discipline Prof. Peter Ludlow, causing her severe anxiety, triggering panic attacks.

Lawsuit against Northwestern University for alleged mishandling of sexual assault highlights lapse in Title IX obligations

by Laura Bradley and Mauricio Peña
Feb 12, 2014

The Northwestern University sexual assault lawsuit involving a then-freshman student and tenured professor Peter Ludlow draws into question many practices surrounding how sexual offenses are handled at post-secondary institutions.


The federal lawsuit filed Monday against NU questions the university’s handling of the alleged sexual attack case. The student plaintiff alleges the university was negligent in handling her case. As a result, the student said she repeatedly crossed paths with Ludlow on campus, causing her severe anxiety and triggering panic attacks that hindered her academic performance, according to the lawsuit.

“Disciplinary action should be appropriate to the offense,” said Jody Raphael, senior research fellow and visiting professor, DePaul University College of Law. “Tenured faculty should not be exempt from appropriate action.”

Educational institutions are required to take immediate action to “eliminate harassment, and prevent its recurrence and address its effects,” according to the Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.

“If the school knows of rape or hostile environment, they have to respond to complaints," Raphael said. "They must process it in a good time frame. In this case, it seems like they didn’t.”

The plaintiff’s attorney Kevin O’Connor said he was "baffled" by the university’s response to the 2012 incident. He said he expected the university to settle before he filed the lawsuit, but the university contended the issue had been handled properly.

“When we talked to them regarding the corrective action, Northwestern University would say, ‘We handled it; he’s been punished,’ " O'Connor said. "When we asked what has been done, the university would not disclose this information.”

The lawsuit says NU's sexual harassment and prevention director emailed the university's findings to the plaintiff on or about April 11, 2012: "In particular, Ms. Slavin found that Ludlow initiated kissing, French kissing, rubbing Plaintiff’s back, and sleeping with his arms on and around Plaintiff on the night of February 10-11, 2012."

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff seeks compensatory damages, plus interest, attorney fees, punitive damages, costs associated with litigation, and any other relief the court deems appropriate.

The 2012 alleged incident occurred at a series of bars, art exhibitions and Ludlow's apartment, according to the lawsuit, where the student, then under-aged, says she was forced to drink alcohol.  She also says Ludlow acted inappropriately.

All the locations were off-campus and outside university jurisdiction, however.

Raphael said this case represents a national issue.

“This is a problem in many schools and universities in the country; this not just Northwestern,” Raphael said. Title IX "is trying to train schools to follow the complaints, but they move slowly … It’s a cultural issue; you see it in the Catholic Church, see it as closing of the doors, protecting itself, dragging its feet in terms of dealing with sexual assaulters.”

Northwestern University spokesman Bob Rowley said in an email, “We don't comment on pending litigation but the university has policies and procedures in place to protect our students and to address any such reported concerns.”

LAWSUIT02Sexual offenses across Illinois post-secondary institutions (sorted by average number of sexual offenses between 2010 and 2012). Data compiled from Clery Act records, All are criminal cases that took place on university campuses, university-controlled facilities or public property on or adjacent to university campuses. Non-criminal cases and cases that occur off campus are not recorded under the Clery Act.
Laura Bradley/MEDILL