OIE Director accused of mishandling sexual assault, racial discrimination cases at University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Tuesday, July 21, 2020 - 2:40pm

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 A lawsuit filed in the District Court of Nebraska Monday alleges Tamiko Strickman, director the University of Michigan’s Office of Institutional Equity, mishandled student reports of sexual assault and violated sex discrimination and civil rights laws at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Nine current or former UNL students are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Strickland served as an investigator, deputy Title IX coordinator, Title IX coordinator and director of the Office of Institutional Equity and Compliance at UNL from 2015 to 2019.

The lawsuit states Strickman was terminated from UNL in December 2019. University of Michigan spokesman Rick Fitzgerald and UNL spokesperson Leslie Reed both told The Daily in emails Strickman was not terminated from UNL. Reed said Strickman is highly qualified and UNL would have “liked very much to keep her.” The University of Michigan announced Strickman’s hiring in December 2019 and became OIE Director effective in January 2020.

Fitzgerald said the University is aware of the lawsuit, but declined to comment as the complaint was not filed against the University. 

Miranda Melson, a former UNL student, was raped by a male student in July 2016 after explicitly telling him she did not want a “one-night stand,” the lawsuit says. When the male student allegedly undressed and began touching Melson sexually, she was frozen and unable to verbalize her objection. The male student continued to contact Melson against her wishes until she reported the rape and stalking to the UNL IEC in September 2016, the lawsuit says. 

Strickman was allegedly assigned to Melson’s case. Melson asked Strickman to record their interviews, the lawsuit says, but Strickman refused and only recorded the male student’s interviews. IEC interviewed the male student’s witness, but not Melson’s witness, according to the lawsuit. 

During one meeting, Strickman allegedly told Melson, “This would be different if I were your parent, but I’m not your parent.”

In a November 2016 letter to Melson, Strickman wrote that no findings were made about Melson’s stalking or assault claims, the lawsuit says.

“During the parties’ sexual interaction, you did not inform Respondent through words or actions [that] you did not consent to the sexual activity,” Strickman allegedly wrote. “Therefore, no sanction is deemed to be appropriate or necessary.” 

The lawsuit alleges a requirement for an affirmative rejection contradicts the UNL Student Code of Conduct’s definition of consent. 

“‘Consent’ means agreement, approval or permission as to some act or purpose, given voluntarily by a competent person,” the Code of Conduct reads. “A person need not resist verbally or physically where it would be useless or futile to do so.”

The lawsuit also alleges a requirement for an affirmative rejection contradicts the definition of consent on IEC’s website.

“Consent is an affirmative decision to engage in mutually acceptable sexual activity by clear actions and words,” the website reads. “Silence does not equal consent. Moreover, passivity, or lack of active resistance alone does not equal consent.”

Melson’s case was reported by The Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper at ULN, in April 2019. In the article, Strickman says some of students’ dissatisfaction with the office stems from a misunderstanding of its role.

“I think, sort of from the onset of sexual misconduct issues, it can oftentimes be difficult and challenging for a Title IX office because students are sometimes surprised when they learn that we are not advocacy offices,” Strickman said.

During a 2017-2018 IEC investigation, a male student alleged of sexual assault allegedly stalked a female student online, changed his social media profile picture to a picture of her and sent nude photographs of her to IEC. Though the ULN Student Code of Conduct states, “Mediation shall not be used to resolve sexual assault complaints,” the female student was pressured by Strickman and others in IEC to drop a formal investigation and agree to a “mediation,” the lawsuit says.

IEC found the male student responsible for one incident of sexual assault, recommended him for expulsion and made no mention of retaliation or stalking, the lawsuit says.

The male student appealed and the female student stayed in Lincoln past the end of the school year for the hearing scheduled for May 23, 2018. The afternoon before the hearing, Strickman called the female student and asked if she would accept a mediation agreement. 

“If not, we will probably have to cancel the hearing tomorrow anyway,” Strickman said, according to the lawsuit. 

Strickman gave the female student a half hour to decide on the mediation deal, the lawsuit says. When the female student told Strickman she planned to go on with the hearing instead, Strickman allegedly told her, “You could very well lose.”

The lawsuit also claims UNL’s IEC staff and Title IX investigators had not received proper training in investigating sexual assaults. 

According to the lawsuit, during an interview with Sydney Brun-Ozuna in 2017, an alleged sexual assault victim, Meagan Counley, then-deputy Title IX coordinator under Strickman, asked questions that made Brun-Ozana feel that Counley blamed her for the sexual assault. Counley allegedly asked what she was wearing, what underwear she was wearing, whether she was showing any cleavage and how short her skirt was. At one point, Counley made Brun-Ozuna stand up and show Counley on her body how short her skirt had been the night in question, the lawsuit says. 

Counley told Brun-Ozana the male student accused of assaulting her initially told Counley nothing had happened, then “recanted” his denial, then “unrecanted” by saying nothing happened again, according to the lawsuit. Counley told Brun-Ozuna that the male student “unrecanted” because Counley had told him that recanting his statement could hurt his credibility in her investigation, so he decided against it, the lawsuit says. 

Counley was named UNL’s interim Title IX coordinator in December 2019 when Strickman left for the University of Michigan. Strickman told The Daily Nebraskan in April 2019 that the three investigators in UNL’s office, which included Counley, underwent extensive and continual training.

“I think that we conduct investigations really well,” Strickman said. “I think we provide due process … We’re very transparent about what the process is going to look like.”

The lawsuit claims Strickman mishandled racial discrimination complaints as well. 

A Black female ROTC student was referred to derogatorily as “the black cadet,” by a male cadet who repeatedly sexually harassed her, the lawsuit says. After the female cadet came out as bisexual to her ROTC colleagues in 2018, the male cadet allegedly asked her how she would perform sex acts on other women. The male cadet allegedly continued to question and harass the female cadet about race relations, discrimination, privilege and her sexuality throughout 2018. The lawsuit claims the male cadet disinvited the female cadet from the cadet carpool due to her race and sexual orientation. The female cadet reported the incidents to IEC and requested a formal investigation in October 2018. 

A month later, IEC came back to the female cadet with no finding made against the male cadet regarding any of her complaints. The lawsuit noted the findings report analyzed each individual incident separately rather than the totality of the hostile environment the male cadet had created for the female cadet. The next day, the female cadet met with Strickman to explain the finding, the lawsuit says. 

Strickman allegedly told the female cadet that race discrimination claims “will never be fully investigated [by IEC] because students on campus have a right to free speech.”

Strickman told the Daily Nebraskan that it is not an administrator’s role to draw the line between sexual harassment and freedom of speech, but rather follow the law and policies in the university’s student code of conduct.

“When we receive reports with allegations based upon any type of expression or speech, we carefully consider whether the conduct is protected under the First Amendment,” Strickman said. “Our primary concern is protecting the campus from sex discrimination while ensuring we do not infringe on individual rights.”

As an investigator, Strickman told the Daily Nebraskan, she looks at cases from both sides and tries to gather as much evidence as possible.

“No matter what the circumstances or the outcome, [these are] very hard situations for the people who have come forward and for the people who have been accused,” Strickman said. “Even though I think we always think about victims and survivors and the emotions they’re going through, people who have been accused are going through similar emotions, for different reasons, but very same types of tears, anger, confusion.” 

UNL’s Title IX office saw 176 complaints during the 2015-16 school year, Reed told the Daily Nebraskan. Of the 2015-16 complaints, 11.56 percent resulted in a finding of sexual misconduct, according to Reed. When The Daily asked UNL for comment on the lawsuit, Reed wrote that she could not comment on the specifics of any Title IX investigation or on pending litigation. 

“The health and safety of all of our students is of the utmost importance to us,” Reed wrote. “We have a strong Title IX process and are confident in it. Every case is difficult and investigated based on the information made available.”

The University of Michigan’s Office of Institutional Equity saw 218 reports for the 2017 fiscal year, where “13 percent were investigated and 4 percent of the total cases were found to be violations,”  according to a document provided by the office to the Daily Nebraskan

In a statement to the University Record upon her appointment to University of Michigan OIE director in January, Strickman said she was thrilled for the opportunity to expand on the University’s legacy as a national leader for diversity and equal opportunity practices. 

“I look forward to working with the entire campus community as we move forward, building momentum toward greater inclusiveness,” Strickman said. 

When reached for comment, Karen Truszkowski, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, wrote in an email, “the complaint speaks for itself.”

“We have outlined a pattern of behavior that has frightened and discouraged UNL students from reporting harassment to the University,” Truszkowski wrote. “These are not isolated incidents.”

Summer News Editor Calder Lewis can be reached at calderll@umich.edu.