William Paterson University has agreed to pay $800,000 to settle a lawsuit claiming it violated Title IX by failing to investigate a report that a student was raped.
The university finalized an agreement March 1 to settle a suit that was filed in federal court in Newark on behalf of Cherelle Jovanna Locklear. The 21-year-old student committed suicide in her residence hall at the school in November 2015.
On Oct. 26, 2015, in a meeting with Theresa Bivaletz, a campus victim services coordinator for William Paterson, Locklear described the circumstances of the assault and identified the perpetrator. Locklear asked Bivaletz to report the crime to the campus police and also told her about the prior suicide attempt. But Bivaletz did not immediately report the incident to police.
Locklear used a necktie to hang herself on Nov. 22, 2015. The alleged rapist was never questioned, disciplined or otherwise sanctioned for the assault, and no steps were taken to keep him away from her, the suit claimed.
The suit said William Paterson was obligated under Title IX to immediately investigate Locklear’s report that she was raped, and to take immediate steps to protect her, including separating her from her alleged assailant by a no-contact order.
As a result, based on statements she made to her mother and some close friends, Locklear said she was in constant fear that the rapist would be in one of her classes or that she would see him on campus, according to the lawsuit.
According to the suit, administrators at the school were fully aware of Locklear’s reported rape, but were deliberately indifferent and failed to take any action to protect her from encountering her assailant so she could fully access her education.
The lawsuit said William Paterson was also on notice of other instances of sexual assaults of its female students. Its failure to take action to address those incidents “created a climate in which such misconduct against women was tolerated. As a result, William Paterson University’s policy of deliberate indifference to the safety and security of its female students encouraged sexual assault and sex-based violence,” the suit claimed.
The suit named the university, its police department, and several of its administrators as defendants. The Theta Tau chapter of Sigma Pi, also named as a defendant, agreed to a settlement under confidential terms.
The settlement was reached after mediation with Dennis Cavanaugh, a former U.S. District Court judge who is now with McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter in Morristown.
The suit said Locklear’s attacker was a former William Paterson student and Sigma Pi brother who attended three semesters at the school before leaving after the Fall 2013 semester due to financial and academic problems. He was deactivated from the Theta Tau chapter for failing to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, the suit said. But he was still considered a member of the chapter and was permitted to attend parties and social events.
Benjamin Clarke of DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick, Cole & Giblin in Teaneck, who represented the university, its police department and the university defendants, did not return a call seeking comment.
William Paterson spokeswoman Mary Beth Zeman said in a statement, “The legal matter that commenced after the tragic death of Cherelle Locklear has now been resolved by an agreement that is acceptable to all parties and with no admission of wrongdoing or liability by William Paterson University.”
Roy Cohen of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman in Morristown, who represents the Theta Tau chapter of Sigma Pi, also did not respond to a request for comment.
Bradley Rice and Jay Rice of Nagel Rice in Roseland, and Peter Till of the Law Offices of Peter Till in Springfield, represented Locklear’s mother, Marquesa Jackson-Locklear. Bradley Rice said the episode seems to show that various departments at William Paterson “were not talking with each other” about Locklear’s sexual assault. He added that sexual assault, “especially on college campuses, remains an epidemic. The more that society can do to bring light to this problem and ensure the institutions that are supposed to be educating our children live up to the standards we expect, the better.”