Judge dismisses lawsuit against Duke stemming from sexual assault allegation

Stock image

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Duke University filed by a former student who claimed Duke’s response to an alleged sexual assault was inadequate and created a hostile educational environment.

The former student, Arianna Qayumi, sued Duke, claiming that the university violated her rights under the federal Title IX law. She claimed that she was drugged and raped by two students in 2011 and that one of them videotaped her being assaulted. Qayumi contended the university was deliberately indifferent and negligent in its response, ultimately leading her to transfer to another school.

One of the men accused was the son of a Duke professor and stepson of the former Duke provost, Peter Lange, but the judge, Catherine Eagles, found that there was not undue influence by the parents on the process conducted by Duke. Further, Eagles wrote: “The undisputed evidence establishes that Duke’s response was not clearly unreasonable.”

The two accused former students, Colby Leachman and Brian Self, said the sexual contact was consensual. They were not criminally charged and were not found responsible for sexual misconduct during Duke disciplinary proceedings. On two occasions, Duke police took the evidence to the Durham district attorney, who declined to prosecute.

Evidence showed Qayumi walked into Duke’s student health center the day of the incident but left without seeing anyone. She also left an anonymous note for a dorm adviser. Duke police tracked her down after rumors of two campus incidents of sexual assault, and following interviews with Leachman and Self. She told police she did not remember sexual contact with anyone on the date in question, and had not consented to any contact, according to the evidence cited in the ruling.

Duke’s associate dean of students, Stephen Bryan, initiated an investigation into the incident. Administrators contacted Qayumi to say they needed her cooperation to go forward with a hearing, but she told Bryan she did not want to be involved or talk about what happened. She took a leave of absence the next semester.

In 2012, she told Bryan she wanted to initiate a disciplinary case, the court document said, but it wasn’t until 2013 when she submitted a written statement describing non-consensual sexual contact and unauthorized recording. Duke’s Office of Student Conduct initiated disciplinary proceedings against the men and hired a clinical psychologist to investigate.

A disciplinary panel unanimously found that there was not a preponderance of evidence that the men had violated Duke’s sexual misconduct policies. Leachman entered a plea of responsibility that he violated Duke’s policy with regard to unauthorized surveillance and photography. He was placed on probation.

Disciplinary proceedings were not launched by Duke until two years after the incident.

“However, given Ms. Qayumi’s clear statements in 2011 to Duke administrators that she did not want to participate in any disciplinary proceedings and recurring statements of hesitation thereafter, no rational jury could find that Duke’s response was clearly unreasonable,” Eagles wrote in the ruling.

The judge said that “reasonable people might well think that more serious consequences would have been appropriate” for the two accused students, who “even under their own version of the facts behaved horribly to Ms. Qayumi and at least one other woman.”

She said certain Duke failures in 2011 could be second-guessed, but “the court does not evaluate Duke’s conduct with the benefit of hindsight or in a vacuum.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559,@janestancill