Former student sues Liberty University; LU dismisses claims
Liberty University, five employees and a former student athlete are being sued by ex-LU football player Cameron Jackson, who alleges his Title IX rights were violated, he was defamed by the school and he was denied due process during an investigation into an alleged August 2015 sexual assault.
Jackson and two teammates later were cleared of any wrongdoing by law enforcement in the case following an investigation by the Lynchburg Police Department after the incident was reported to LU.
The lawsuit, filed April 14 in Lynchburg Circuit Court, seeks compensation for damages to Jackson’s academic and athletic career, as well as to his reputation.
In a written statement provided by LU on Tuesday evening, general counsel David Corry dismissed Jackson’s claims.
“Liberty University has consistently provided those accused of Title IX violations with proper process both before and during their appeals. Mr. Jackson’s case was no exception,” Corry wrote.
The lawsuit states the former Flames defensive back from Houston suffered severe damage to his future earnings, lost funds for college and that his reputation has been “irreparably destroyed.”
Employees named in the lawsuit are: Robert Mullin, dean of students; Valerie Dufort, assistant director of Liberty’s Title IX Office; Len Stevens, LU’s spokesman; and Jonathan Ignacio and Elysa Bucci, assistant directors for the LU Office of Community Life. The former student athlete who accused Jackson and others of sexual assault also is named in the lawsuit.
On Sept. 12, 2016, LU issued a news release stating Jackson and teammate Kyle Carrington had been suspended from the team due to their involvement in a reported sexual assault that allegedly took place off campus in August 2015. According to that news release, the alleged sexual assault was reported to LU in July 2016, nearly 11 months after the incident, as noted in the lawsuit.
Another former teammate, Avery James, also was accused but already had been dismissed from LU's football team and was not part of the spring roster in February for what Liberty football coach Turner Gill described as a violation of team rules.
LPD conducted an investigation into the allegations, found no evidence and sent its findings to Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Doucette. On Oct. 5, 2016, Doucette said “the evidence is insufficient to go forward,” and no criminal charges were filed against any of the men involved in the alleged off-campus incident.
The lawsuit alleges after Jackson was found to have violated LU’s policies on sexual assault by the school’s Conduct Review Committee, he asked to delay his appeal until the criminal investigation was closed. The lawsuit claims his appeal was denied, and Jackson was dismissed Oct. 4.
“Within hours” of being dismissed from LU, Jackson was notified by Doucette’s office to inform him the “investigation was complete and no criminal charges would be filed,” the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit filed by Jackson’s attorney, Joshua Farmer, casts doubts on the accuser’s charges and alleges Jackson’s accuser acted maliciously and the response of LU and its employees was inept.
The lawsuit also claims LU staff did not protect Jackson from on-campus harassment aimed at him by other LU students, and such behavior caused him to stop attending classes.
“Liberty University is learning of this allegation for the first time today and has not had the chance to investigate it,” Corry wrote in the statement provided by LU on Tuesday evening.
Specific employees are named for a variety of reasons, and individual damages are being sought.
The lawsuit accuses Mullin, Dufort, Ignacio and Bucci of failing to address reports of retaliation or harassment against Jackson, of not following LU policies during the school’s investigation and of a gender bias at LU for not providing the same protection to Jackson a female student would receive.
Stevens, the LU spokesman, is named as a defendant for his role in issuing a news release the lawsuit claims “withheld significant relevant facts,” such as Jackson’s denial of the claims and his then-ongoing appeal. The lawsuit claims this was done to discourage Jackson from appealing his case.
Additionally, the lawsuit alleges witnesses emerged with new information following media reports, and Dufort allegedly discouraged at least one student from testifying on Jackson’s behalf in the appeals process initiated by Jackson after the findings of the Conduct Review Committee.
In Liberty’s statement, Corry wrote this was the first time LU had heard of these allegations.
“Liberty University anticipates engaging counsel on behalf of its employees sued over how they performed their jobs. Of course, they are free to also engage their own counsel,” Corry wrote.
Jackson is seeking up to $50 million from LU, up to $50 million from the former student athlete who accused him of sexual assault, $1 million from Mullin, $500,000 from Dufort, $250,000 from Ignacio, $250,000 from Stevens and $100,000 from Bucci — for a total of $102.1 million.
“The proportions are based on what we believe to be the relative degree of fault/harm caused by each person in light [of] their assigned responsibilities. Ultimately, a jury will decide how much to award,” Farmer wrote to The News & Advance via email Tuesday.
The lawsuit alleges Jackson’s accuser was a student athlete involved in a non-exclusive sexual relationship with Jackson and other football players, and that she was dismissed from LU after multiple student conduct violations. The lawsuit claims the accuser and two other LU female students engaged in a conspiracy against the football team, which included two later sexual assault claims that were reported to LU but not to law enforcement, in an effort to get football players in trouble.
The lawsuit also claims Liberty sought to make an example out of Jackson and others in order to not look weak on Title IX, since LU was in the process of hiring Ian McCaw as athletic director. McCaw previously was athletic director at Baylor University, which was rocked by a widespread sexual assault scandal within the athletic department that led to the firing of BU’s president and football coach. McCaw has denied direct knowledge of the cover-up of sexual assaults at Baylor.
"... LU's decision to uphold a finding of sexual assault and render the harshest available sanction was unfairly influenced by the University's desire to preserve its own public image as a leading Christian university, regardless of any fairness or due process it owed to Mr. Jackson." The decision was influenced by LU's "desire to recruit Ian McCaw and its fear that negative publicity over a Title IX investigation could jeopardize that process,” the lawsuit against LU and the other defendants states.
Corry called the claims “pure speculation” and said the decisions were not related.
In November, when McCaw was hired, LU President Jerry Falwell Jr. told The News & Advance the university has “gone to great pains to make sure we’ve complied” with Department of Education Title IX regulations, which were established in 1972 to prevent sex-based discrimination in schools.
The LU Student Honor Code — known as The Liberty Way — prohibits “sexual relations outside of a Biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and natural-born woman.” This policy, the lawsuit claims, creates incentive for female students to falsely report sexual assault to avoid punishment.
Disciplinary measures can include demerits, fines and community service hours.
All schools receiving federal funding must comply with Title IX regulations. Though a private university, LU receives federal funds through student loans and grant programs.
According to the most recent data available from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, 79,244 LU students received more than $825 million in federal student aid in 2014-15.