By Elizabeth Hewitt, VTDigger
A former student is suing Norwich University, claiming the institution did not take sufficient steps to protect her and others from sexual assault. In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Vermont this week, Lauren Morrissey claims that Norwich University was negligent for failing to take action against a student who had been the subject of multiple sexual misconduct complaints before he allegedly assaulted her in November 2016.
Morrissey was in the first semester of her freshman year at the Northfield college when she was allegedly assaulted in her dorm room last November. She reported the assault to campus officials, initiating an investigation that, according to court papers, eventually led to the dismissal of her alleged attacker from school. The university confirmed that the individual is no longer a student, but would not comment on disciplinary actions. VTDigger is not identifying the name of the individual accused of assault because no criminal charges have been filed against him.
It was only later that Morrissey learned her case was not the first time the university received reports about inappropriate behavior by the student accused of attacking her. The victim alleges that Norwich officials ignored three previous reports of sexual harassment, abuse and assault by the same perpetrator.
Though Morrissey was not surprised to learn that the individual allegedly had a history of sexual misconduct with others, she said she was surprised that the university had not taken any action based on previous reports. “They let him roam around campus free, and they had notice that he was assaulting women on campus,” Morrissey said in an interview Wednesday. VTDigger does not typically identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but Morrissey gave permission to use her name.
Jeff Herman, who heads the Florida-based law firm representing Morrissey in the case, said that responsibility for the assault on Morrissey rests both with her alleged attacker and the university. “You have really two wrongdoers here,” he said. “This we believe is something that never should have happened.” Norwich officials could have prevented the alleged assault on Morrissey if they had taken action based on previous accusations against the individual, Herman said.
The suit makes three claims against Norwich University, including arguing that the university was negligent and that it violated Title IX, a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity.
Since the suit was filed, Herman has been contacted by another female Norwich student who has concerns about the way the college is handling her case, he said.
Herman’s firm specializes in representing victims of sexual assault across the country, and he said he has worked on several cases focused on holding colleges and universities responsible for the way they deal with incidents that occur on campuses. “Schools need to err on the side of caution and protect their female students,” Herman said.
Daphne Larkin, a spokesperson for Norwich, said the university would not comment on any specific case, by policy. However, in a statement she said the university “does take very seriously” reports of misconduct, and that all allegations are investigated and disciplinary action taken when appropriate. “At Norwich University we prioritize student safety above all else,” Larkin said in the statement.
Washington County State’s Attorney Scott Williams said his office would assess “whether there should be or will continue to be a criminal investigation.”
The Northfield Police Department confirmed they received a report of a sexual offense on the Norwich University campus the day after Morrissey says she told officials she was raped in her dorm room. They would not comment on any potential investigation, nor confirm the name of the accused perpetrator.
Morrissey left Norwich shortly after the alleged assault. She now lives in her home state, Connecticut, but still is struggling to fully recover. She had a breakdown a couple months ago related to her experience last November that led her to inpatient psychiatric treatment, she said. She still is in therapy.
“I was feeling as though I was not valuable in life,” Morrissey said. “It made me feel worthless.”
Morrissey decided to bring the lawsuit in hopes of changing how reports of sexual misconduct are handled at the university, she said. “I wanted to bring light to it and I wanted to have other people see that this is what’s happening at Norwich and it’s happening more often than they think it does,” she said.