Lawsuit challenges college’s judicial review
By Brent Curtis
STAFF WRITER | November 25,2012
A former Castleton State College student who says in a lawsuit she was sexually assaulted in her dorm room is suing the school for what she argues was its failure to assist her after she went to school officials and counselors for help.
But in court filings and interviews school officials say they assisted the young woman as much as the law allows them to and the student who she says assaulted her — a 21-year-old who pleaded guilty to a criminal charge in the case — maintains that the events that took place the night of Nov. 15, 2009, were consensual.
It was on that night, according to documents in Rutland criminal and civil court, that Nicholas C. Coombs visited the room of a young woman on campus.
Invited into the room on the pretense of a question about campus housing, Coombs made romantic gestures and was asked to leave, according to the woman’s account.
But before he left, he committed an act that Castleton Police Chief Bruce Sherwin and the Rutland County State’s Attorney’s office decided warranted charging him with a felony count of lewd and lascivious conduct.
That charge was eventually amended to a misdemeanor count of engaging in prohibited acts in exchange for Coombs’ plea of guilty to the charge. Prosecutors said the prohibited acts charge was warranted because Coombs had “engaged in lewdness.”
In November 2011, Coombs was sentenced to a two- to 10-month probationary sentence and he was ordered to perform 75 hours of community service.
But he was exonerated of any wrongdoing during a judicial review conducted at the college months before the woman brought her complaint to the police, according to an eight-page complaint the woman filed in Rutland civil court.
And after the college’s judicial process, Coombs was allowed to return to the dorm where the woman lived — a situation that left the woman “distressed and fearful” and which prompted her to quit the college and return to her home state of New Jersey in January 2009.
Coombs remains enrolled at the college, according to court records, and has served as a mentor for the CSC “ACES” program.
The lack of disciplinary action by the school following Coombs’ criminal conviction and the handling of the woman’s complaint represents legal negligence, according to Lisa Chalidze, one of two Rutland County attorneys representing the woman.
According to the college’s student handbook, personnel are required to assist reported victims of sexual assault with reporting offenses to the authorities.
But Chalidze said personnel at the college’s student health clinic did the opposite.
“What’s always troubled us from the start is that she agreed to go through the process and he was exonerated and then he pleads guilty in court but nothing changes at the school. She’s gone but he’s still there,” Chalidze said. “He’s still hanging out there and it makes her look like a false accuser.”
Of equal concern, Chalidze said, was the advice she said the woman was given by staff at the health center.
“They didn’t tell her not to report it to the police, but they encouraged her to let the school’s judicial committee handle it,” Chalidze said in an interview.
Sherwin also wrote in an affidavit filed in Rutland criminal court last year that the woman “advised that she did not come to the police initially as she felt pressured to allow the incident to be handled at an All College Judicial Committee hearing.”
Asked about the case this month, Sherwin said he didn’t perceive any wrongdoing on the part of CSC.
“I didn’t find fault with the way they handled it,” he said. “They looked at is as a matter that belonged in the college judicial proceedings. I looked at it as a criminal case.”
The woman initially agreed to let the school’s judicial committee handle the case, but after Coombs was exonerated, she went to police, her lawyers wrote.
In the written complaint, Chalidze said the school also tried to keep the woman from talking about the incident with others.
“Instead of providing and/or referring to qualified providers, (CSC) through its student health clinic counseled (the woman) not to tell her parents about the assault, but to see a doctor over spring break because she needed medication,” Chalidze and co-counsel Theodore Parisi wrote in the complaint.
The college denied those claims in a response filed in civil court and the school’s counsel, Burlington attorney Jeffrey Nolan, said CSC did all it could legally to assist the woman.
“The college did not sweep this under the rug and did not seek to discourage her from reporting to the police,” Nolan said in an interview.
But while the college can assist students by informing them about how to report sexual assaults, the school is prohibited under privacy laws from reporting alleged sexual offenses itself, he said.
The only exception to that rule, he said, are cases where “the safety of the college community is deemed to be in jeopardy” — a clause spelled out verbatim in the student handbook.
The federal Clery Act, which defines how college’s report criminal activity on their campuses, requires schools to report sexual offenses reported by students. But it is at the discretion of the student who brings a sexual assault complaint to bring the matter to the police in the majority of cases.
CSC President David Wolk also denied any wrongdoing on the school’s part.
“We’ll vigorously oppose it in court if necessary,” he said. “We do report all offenses on campus. We comply with the law and we dispute the charge.”
Despite the criminal conviction, Coombs also denies any wrongdoing.
In a written response to the lawsuit, Coombs’ lawyer Elizabeth Mann wrote, “Coombs admits that there was physical contact between plaintiff and defendant on or about Nov. 15, 2009 in her dormitory room. Defendant denies that contact was not consensual.”
Coombs also described his intentions with the woman as “harmless” and that it was never made clear to him that he did not have consent, according to a statement he provided during the college’s judicial review.
Coombs statement was paraphrased by Sherwin in the affidavit he provided to the court. The Castleton police chief also said during an interview Coombs declined to provide a statement to police but he did ask Sherwin a question.
“Why would this woman, who no longer goes to school here, and has left the state, want to pursue this matter when there is no fear of a recurrence of the event?” Coombs asked the chief.