A former student at California Western School of Law has sued the school, claiming that faculty and students discriminated against and harassed her because she is transgender.
Plaintiff Shiloh Bentacourt alleges that California Western did not take seriously her repeated complaints about hostile student and faculty behavior, and that she had no other option but to transfer out and forego her substantial scholarship because she did not feel safe at the San Diego school.
Bentacourt filed suit in state court on Jan. 7, asserting 14 claims including discrimination on the basis of sex and disability, intentional infliction of emotional distress and retaliation. She is seeking upward of $1.3 million in damages.
California Western denied Bentacourt’s allegations in a prepared statement Monday but declined to discuss the circumstances surrounding her time on campus, citing the pending litigation. The school said it has a track record of supporting diverse students of all backgrounds.
“[California Western] has strong policies in place to promote diversity and prohibit harassment or discrimination against employees or students on the basis of gender, sexual orientation or sexual identity,” reads the statement. “[California Western] has established procedures in place to ensure that students, faculty and staff are aware of these policies, to provide all members of our community with a robust process for reporting any concerns about potential harassment or discrimination and for investigation any such reports, and respond promptly and effectively to any violations of [California Western’s] policies.”
Bentacourt was not available for comment Monday.
According to her complaint, Bentacourt enrolled at California Western in January 2017, receiving a 70 percent scholarship. In addition to the financial aid, she was drawn to the school because of its proximity to Los Angeles—she aspires to practice entertainment law—and assurances that it is an inclusive campus that embraces diversity.
But she claims problems arose soon after she began her studies. Several professors were dismissive of her questions during class and office hours, she said. Her assigned tutor made little effort to help her, despite being very responsive to other students, she alleges. And a torts classmates referred to her as a “He-She,” she claims. A professor also used that term to describe her, according to the complaint.
“Despite being targeted in school because of her transgender identity, Ms. Bentacourt tried to keep it all to herself as she did not want to be labeled a problem,” reads the complaint. “She certainly didn’t want any attention to herself as she wanted to keep low-key because of her gender identity.”
Bentacourt’s suit alleges that the dean of students dissuaded her from seeking an investigation into her tutor and others. But she filed a complaint, later claiming it was leaked to her tormentors—stoking further aggression toward her. The conflict on campus triggered her anxiety and depression, and she experienced a panic attack during her torts exam, failing the class, according to her suit. (She had requested a separate testing room away from the students she viewed as hostile toward her and was denied, she claims.)
Bentacourt claims that she stopped studying on campus, spent the time between classes in her car, and stopped sitting in the front of the classroom and participating in discussions. California Western launched a formal investigation into her complaints in the summer of 2018—more than a year after she began reporting problems—but the perpetrators were not held accountable, she said.
Her suit alleges she was coerced into transferring to Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law in the fall of 2018, where she does not receive any scholarship money and must pay out-of-state tuition. She also incurred costs in relocating and is required to pay back the scholarship money she received from California Western for her first year, according to the complaint.
Bentacourt and California Western entered settlement talks in the fall but were unable to reach an agreement, according to her complaint.