Two female ballet students have accused University of Cincinnati administrators of protecting a male dancer who they allege repeatedly groped them, according to a federal lawsuit.
“During practices and performances, the male student touched his partners inappropriately,” the suit states. “UC was deliberately indifferent to the harassment suffered by these women.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on June 30. The women are using pseudonyms in the filings. The male student is also not named in the lawsuit and is not being sued.
According to the complaint, the university ignored the complaints of one of the women, issued an ineffective no-contact order for the other and conducted a flawed investigation and hearing regarding the man’s alleged misconduct. The lawsuit states the school has a history of mishandling cases such as this.
“The university does take Title IX-related complaints seriously as part of our goal for creating a safe campus for all,” UC officials said in a statement. The statement also encouraged students to report “misconduct.” UC officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.
Contact prior to UC
The man was on a scholarship to attend UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and received “favored and starring roles” in productions, the suit states, and he also performed with the Cincinnati Ballet.
One of the plaintiffs said she first danced with the man when she was 15.
“During that time, (he) inappropriately touched (her) breasts and buttocks during practices,” the suit states. “(She) did not report misconduct because she was young and inexperienced and did not appreciate the severity of (his) conduct.”
After she ended up at college with him, she reported this and other concerns to a professor in 2019, the lawsuit states. The professor went to the university’s Title IX office, which handles sexual assault complaints. The professor was told to “stay out of it,” court documents state.
Incidents continued into the fall of 2021, suit states
The lawsuit states incidents of inappropriate touching happened throughout the fall of 2021. Eventually, the two plaintiffs talked to each other and escalated their complaints to the head of the division of theatre arts, production and art administration.
The division head filed a report on the matter, but only mentioned one of the victims, the lawsuit states.
Court documents state, in further discussions with their professors the women were told:
- “He’s paying for the class.”
- “We don’t know anything about Title IX and we can’t do anything,”
- “If you’re uncomfortable you don’t have to partner with him.”
- “Just walk out of class.”
Investigation, no-contact order but no disciplinary action
In late October, a no-contact order was issued by the university between the male dancer and one of the women. The lawsuit states the order said it was the responsibility of both parties to stay away from each other. The plaintiffs argue that this provided no protection to the women.
An investigation was launched into the man’s behavior. According to court documents, he said the incidents were accidents, some of the materials used in the outfits were slippery and “men’s hands sweat a lot.”
The investigation only pertained to one of the women who is suing. The university did not conduct an investigation into the other complaints, the suit states.
Court documents state the male dancer was found “not responsible” by the hearing panel and faced no disciplinary action.
Show your work
Josh Engle is one of the lawyers representing the women. He said UC’s process for handling these cases is flawed.
“UC has a pattern and practices of both not taking allegations of sexual assault against female students seriously,” the lawsuit states. “And not respecting the due process rights of both accused students and alleged victims.”
UC has been sued on multiple occasions regarding its handling of such cases. In 2019, the school’s Title IX coordinator sued saying she was forced to resign after she raised concerns about honoring a student who was a registered sex offender.
“There are institutions that have done a lot better job for anyone going through this process to make them feel they had a fair, just and equitable process,” Engle said. “What students really want is an accurate, reliable result.”
Engle said the expert witness in the current case was the professor who worked with all the students. He said the professor was tasked with safeguarding the students and had a motivation to show that was happening. The female student was also not allowed to cross-examine the professor, he said.
Engle said the process is “designed to a be black box” with no transparency and those conducting the investigation often have very little experience. He said some investigators have only attended a three-day seminar on the issue.
Engle said shifting federal priorities as well as the federal mandates that universities handle these cases themselves complicate things, but said that is “all the more reason to show your work.”
Engle said the students are still enrolled at UC but both doing off-campus co-ops at this time.
The case is currently assigned to Judge Matthew McFarland. Hearings in the case have not yet been scheduled.