CARBONDALE — A former Southern Illinois University Carbondale employee is suing the university, as well as a former professor and graduate student, accusing the university of mishandling her reports of sexual assault and harassment that allegedly happened from 2016 to 2018.
The lawsuit accuses the school and plant biology professor emeritus Karen Renzaglia of Title IX and civil rights violations. The university is also accused of sexual harassment, retaliation and negligence. The former graduate student, Nicholas Flowers, is accused of assault and battery for alleged sexual and physical assault.
SIU spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said Renzaglia does not have a current appointment at the school, but she “is doing some grant-related consulting work.” She has work space on campus that Goldsmith said is “in line with what we typically provide retired tenured faculty.”
Flowers earned a Master of Science from SIU in 2018, according to a commencement program on SIU’s website.
The university and Renzaglia are accused of violating Title IX — part of the Education Amendments of 1972 that says an educational institution that receives federal funding cannot discriminate based on sex — by failing to act on the plaintiff’s complaints of sexual assault. Title IX requires schools to respond to sexual harassment and assault on its campuses, or potentially lose federal funding.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of a woman only identified as Jane Doe 5, seeks a jury trial to hear the civil case, and seeks damages for Doe’s psychological and emotional distress, loss of standing in her community, damage to her reputation and costs she incurred, as well as punitive damages meant to punish the university and deter similar actions in the future. The lawsuit also seeks injunctive relief that would require the university to change its policies for handling reports of sexual assault and harassment.
The case was filed Tuesday in federal civil court. The individuals named have not been charged with any crimes; they are asked to answer to the allegations in a civil trial.
According to the court filing, a copy of which was provided to The Southern by Doe’s St. Louis-based attorney, Nicole Gorovsky, the university “failed to adequately respond to stop harassment and discrimination against (Doe)” and took steps that caused Doe to be sexually harassed and assaulted while she was at SIU.
It also says the environment in the Plant Biology Department — and in the SIU system in general — “was such that women were aware that they would face retaliation if they officially reported abuse.”
Doe worked for Renzaglia in the Plant Biology Department as a research and education specialist from May 2016 to May 2018, and Flowers was a graduate student who also reported to Renzaglia as a teaching and research assistant, according to the court filing.
The university, and Doe’s boss, the lawsuit alleges, failed to protect Doe or create a safe work environment before, during and after the alleged assaults. The lawsuit also alleges Doe’s boss ignored past reports accusing Flowers of sexual misconduct, and the university in general discourages students from reporting sexual assault and harassment. The lawsuit alleges SIU does not have appropriate procedures in place to resolve sex discrimination and harassment complaints, and that the university has failed to properly train its staff on Title IX requirements.
The university and Renzaglia are also accused of violating Doe’s civil rights, because they allegedly knew Flowers had been accused of sexual misconduct in the past, and his access to campus was not limited, therefore putting Doe at risk for sexual assault at the university.
The lawsuit alleges sexual harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, saying the university’s failure to take action on Doe's reports created a hostile work environment. The lawsuit also alleges the university retaliated against Doe after she reported the sexual assault.
Goldsmith said Wednesday she can’t comment on a specific case or any pending lawsuit. But she said the university’s policies “very specifically prohibit sexual harassment,” and the university “absolutely” encourages individuals to report incidents. She said “every single” university employee undergoes annual training for handling sexual harassment.
“The university investigates all complaints thoroughly and takes appropriate actions based upon findings of the investigation,” she said.
Renzaglia in an email Thursday said she has dedicated her professional life to “improving the lives of students and people in our community.”
Flowers did not respond to a Thursday afternoon text message seeking comment.
The lawsuit alleges that Flowers sexually assaulted, harassed and abused several women, including Doe, while he was at SIU. The lawsuit outlines several alleged “red flags” in Flowers’ behavior that it contends university personnel knew about, including a student who feared Flowers had drugged her; another student who said that Flowers had “episodes of ‘rage,’ where he would break property and then turn his violence on her;” and another student who said she woke up to Flowers having unwanted sex with her while the two were dating.
The student who feared she had been drugged didn’t report the incident because she feared “the SIUC environment,” according to the lawsuit. The student who reported Flowers’ “episodes of ‘rage’” said she believes a Plant Biology Department employee witnessed Flowers’ alleged aggression toward her, according to the suit. It was not clear from the lawsuit when the other incidents are alleged to have happened. Flowers also graduated from SIU with a bachelor of science in 2015, according to a commencement program.
The university declined to provide disciplinary records The Southern requested through the Freedom of Information Act that would have shown whether the university had received a report for these or any other potential incidents of sexual or gender-based violence, citing federal student privacy laws. Goldsmith on Wednesday said she couldn’t comment on whether Flowers had ever been investigated.
Court records in Jackson County indicate Flowers has never been charged with a crime connected to any of these incidents.
The lawsuit says Renzaglia pressured Doe to enter a romantic relationship with Flowers, even though she was allegedly aware that Flowers had been accused of sexual misconduct in the past.
Flowers allegedly pursued Doe from August to September of 2016, until the two attended a concert following a party at a professor’s home. Doe woke up the next morning in Flowers’ bed, according to the lawsuit, without her clothing and “aware that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted.”
According to the lawsuit, Flowers continued to pursue Doe after that incident, and Renzaglia continued to encourage their romantic relationship. Doe and Flowers continued to see each other, according to the suit, because Doe felt pressured by her employer; Renzaglia allegedly implied to Doe that her position was unstable.
Renzaglia told Doe she was aware that Flowers was violent with women, the complaint says, and asked Doe if he had been violent with her. But, out of fear of retaliation, Doe did not reveal the violence she says she was the victim of, according to the suit.
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When Flowers and Renzaglia allegedly had a falling out in February 2018, according to the lawsuit, Doe saw an opportunity to escape from the “abusive situation” without reprisal from her employer; she then told Flowers she did not want to see him anymore, according to the suit.
Doe told Renzaglia on March 25, 2018, about the alleged sexual assault and abuse, the court filing states. Renzaglia allegedly responded by asking Doe if she had said “no” and whether it was just “rough sex,” according to the complaint. The lawsuit further alleges that Renzaglia — a mandatory reporter of sexual violence at the university — did not report the assault complaint until April 20, 2018. And, that was allegedly after Doe told Renzaglia that she was planning to go to the police.
According to the university’s policy on discrimination and sexual harassment, complaints — whether by a victim or third party reporter — should be made “as soon as possible, but shall be made no later than one hundred twenty (120) calendar days following the alleged incident.”
On April 24, 2018, Doe reported to the Carbondale Police Department that Flowers had “sexually and physically assaulted her multiple times from 2016 to 2018,” according to the complaint. She detailed incidents of sexual and physical assault, according to the suit.
Doe alleges that, after she reported the assault to Renzaglia, her boss repeatedly questioned her about her allegations, and failed to keep the issue confidential. She says she could hear her co-workers discussing the alleged abuse while they were at work.
The lawsuit alleges that after Doe reported the abuse, the university and Renzaglia failed to provide a safe work environment when they did not prevent Flowers from coming to campus. Flowers kept a key to Doe’s workplace after she reported the assaults, according to the court filing.
Doe complained about Renzaglia’s alleged behavior to the then-chair of the Department of Plant Biology and to the Carbondale Police, and, according to the lawsuit, things did not improve.
When Doe requested time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act because she feared for her safety, Renzaglia allegedly “tried to coerce” her not to take leave, according to the court filing. The suit alleges Renzaglia criticized Doe in front of other staff.
Doe went on leave on May 10, 2018. She officially left SIU on June 1, 2018, according to the lawsuit.
“(Doe) reported her victimization where victims before her could not but it resulted in the negative consequences that those before her had feared,” the lawsuit says. “She was not protected, she was harassed, and she was not in any way accommodated.”
In a Tuesday news release from Gorovsky, Doe’s lawyer, Doe urged people who have been victims of violence and discrimination — especially at SIU — to protect other victims by contacting police and getting help.
Gorovsky is also representing an SIU Edwardsville student in a Title IX lawsuit, alleging officials at the Metro East campus mishandled her sexual assault complaint.
“The Southern Illinois University system continues to discriminate based on gender in failing to protect those on their campuses from sexual violence,” Gorovsky said. “This should not have happened.”
A representative with the Carbondale Police Department confirmed it received a report of a sexual assault on April 24, 2018, but could not say who was accused or who made the report. The case was referred to Jackson County State’s Attorney Michael Carr for consideration of charges.
Assistant Jackson County State’s Attorney Rebecca Blomer told The Southern on Thursday that the prosecutor’s office received the case report from Carbondale Police on Sept. 18, 2018. She said she reviewed the case along with another attorney and the state’s attorney’s victims’ advocate.
“After the review process, we determined that it was unlikely to result in a conviction at trial, based in large part due to … an insufficiency of the evidence,” she said.
Carr also reviewed the case, and agreed with that conclusion, and the case was declined for prosecution. Blomer said she wrote a two-page declination in January explaining why the office wasn’t pursuing charges against Flowers.
She cited a lack of corroborative evidence that would meet the threshold of proof beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction in a criminal case, saying that although more than one victim came forward, at least one allegation was beyond the statute of limitations. She said there was no physical evidence in any of the cases — which she said is typical in sexual assault and abuse cases — and that the victims couldn’t remember some of the details of what had happened.
Blomer said it’s common that in situations of trauma, memory can be impacted.
“But when there’s not really other corroborative evidence or physical evidence, all we have to rely on then is that victim’s account of what happened, and the law requires that that account has to be clear and concise and convincing,” she said. “It makes it really difficult when victims don’t remember much about the specific incidents or are unable to recall specific details.”
She said it would have been difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was not consent in some of the cases. She said there wasn’t enough additional evidence or information surrounding the allegations.
“It’s kind of a totality of the circumstances,” she said.
According to a heavily redacted police report provided to The Southern in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, at least two women on April 25, 2018, also made reports to the SIU Police Department regarding Flowers. The report indicates the officer who took the complaint created an informational report to be reviewed by the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, but the university responded to a records request that it did not have any findings or hearing records from that office.