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Brzonkala lawsuit challenges university community, programs

By Larry Hincker, director, University Relations

Spectrum Volume 18 Issue 21 - February 22, 1996

A federal lawsuit filed against Virginia Tech and two student athletes by Christy Brzonkala has challenged a number of program activities of the university. The suit and Brzonkala's media accusations have raised numerous questions around campus and around the country.

On January 3, a single lawsuit, (divided into two parts), was unsealed in the Federal Court in Roanoke. Virginia Tech is being sued by Brzonkala, a former student, alleging that the university violated her civil rights under Title IX of the United States Code. Brzonkala is seeking $4 million in damages from the university.

The lawsuit also asks the federal court to enjoin Virginia Tech from hearing sexual-assault complaints in its university judicial system. The university believes this has grave possibilities, not only for our institution, but for all of higher education in the United States.

Virginia Tech believes that university judicial systems have long standing and an integral place in oversight of campus student life. In reality, the systems serve as a protection for students. (See Should Campus Judicial Systems Address Sexual Assault Cases, by Cathryn Goree, Dean of Students, Spectrum, Feb. 15, 1996.) The university must have some system for adjudicating violation of university policy, ranging from infractions such as alcohol abuse, theft, drug or weapons charges, and even sexual assault.

Universities cannot take action to reprimand, suspend, or expel students without providing due process. Such process would include having clear and well-communicated policies about student life and a system for hearing and sanctioning violations of such policies. Moreover, federal law requires the university to have policies concerning sexual assault. It requires universities to hear such cases.

The lawsuit also claims a violation of rights under the federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Virginia Tech is not a party to this allegation. Two male students, Antonio Morrison and James Crawford, have been identified in this civil complaint. Oddly, although this case has received considerable national publicity, Crawford and Morrison have not yet been served with the complaint.

Opponents of university judicial systems believe that they serve as a substitute for the criminal courts. They are not substitutes. They do serve in parallel to the courts. Indeed, in all cases a student is free to file charges in a criminal and civil court. University judicial systems review violations of university policy, not the law.

The irony of this lawsuit is that individuals such as Brzonkala, who for whatever reason, elect not to pursue criminal charges against an assailant, would have little recourse or no other avenue to seek redress as a result of sexual assault.

The Federal District Court in Roanoke is scheduled to hear the university's request for a motion to dismiss on February 28.