Chadron State to pay $900,000 in settlement of Title IX lawsuit

Chadron State to pay $900,000 in settlement of Title IX lawsuit

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The Nebraska State College System will pay $900,000 to the family of Fatima Lissette Larios to settle two lawsuits alleging Chadron State College failed to prevent dating violence that led to the softball player's suicide in 2015.

Chadron State also will conduct annual suicide training for faculty, staff and students over the next decade, and ask a third-party consultant to review its Title IX policies and procedures once annually over the next three years, according to the terms of the agreement.

A 2017 federal lawsuit filed by Lissette Roohbakhsh, which was later joined by Nelson Larios, said her daughter was beaten and emotionally abused by her then-boyfriend for months, including during violent arguments in an on-campus dorm room that could be heard by others.

The lawsuit says Larios' coaches also observed "suspicious bruising … that included handprints" on her body, and emotional changes.

The coaches informed Chadron State's athletic director, who notified the campus Title IX office responsible for investigating instances of sexual and dating violence involving members of the campus community.

While the Title IX coordinator emailed Larios a copy of the college's policy on sexual violence and harassment and Larios discussed the situation with coaches, her parents' complaint alleged the college failed "to respond to reports of sexual violence or sex harassment and attend to the needs of the student involved."

According to the suit, Chadron State fell short in its responsibilities to interview students who saw bruises on Larios and overheard her sometimes violent arguments with her boyfriend — allegations the college disputes — and failed to offer Larios mental health counseling or a victim's advocate before she took her own life.

She was 19 years old.

An agreement between attorneys representing Larios' family and the Nebraska State College System was reached in the case before it was set for a jury trial in U.S. District Court in Omaha earlier this year.

As part of the settlement, Larios' parents agreed to drop their federal lawsuit against Chadron State and a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Dawes County District Court, while it stipulates the Nebraska State College System denied any liability for her death.

Several other measures were included in the settlement in addition to the $900,000 monetary payment to Larios' family, which will be paid through the college's insurance.

Chadron State agreed to establish the "Fatima Larios Spirit Scholarship," awarding financial aid to a member of the softball team each year for the next 10 years, and install and maintain a memorial on campus commemorating Larios' life for the next decade.

In a statement, Larios' parents called the memorial "a fitting tribute to someone who lived life with passion, purpose and an unyielding faith in the power of every person to have a positive impact on those around them."

"Both on the field and off, Fatima was dedicated to inspiring, mentoring and championing her teammates and friends," her parents and stepfather said in a statement. "This settlement ensures that legacy will endure and that she will continue to help others while also making Chadron a safer and more welcoming community."

The memorial is expected to cost as much as $25,000 and will be paid for through cash funds, according to a spokeswoman for the college system.

Chadron State President Randy Rhine must also send Larios' parents a letter of condolence, and the college agreed to allow Roohbakhsh and two other family members one-time, private access to her former dorm room.

The college also agreed to make a good-faith effort to return a white, black and red softball glove with Larios' name and her number — 20 — inscribed on it, as well as her softball jerseys, according to the settlement.

An attorney for the state college system, George Martin of the Baird Holm law firm, said Chadron State was confident it could prove no wrongdoing on the school's part in court, but knew the standards in Title IX litigation meant the state could be on the hook for millions in attorneys' fees and court costs even if the jury awarded Larios' family even a small sum.

"One of the goals of the settlement was to bring closure to the family, employees of Chadron State College, and her classmates — everyone who was touched by this," Martin said of the agreement. "These were inexpensive ways to do that and we thought they were important to everyone to heal."

Financial payouts aren't unusual in Title IX settlements, said Saunie Schuster, a partner at TNG Consulting, which works with educational institutions on preventing and managing legal risks surrounding sexual violence, harassment and discrimination on their campuses.

Neither is requiring additional training for staff, or an external review of certain policies and procedures.

But the amount awarded — Schuster said typical Title IX settlements range between $300,000 and $500,000, although some can be considerably higher — as well as the peripheral terms of the agreement illustrate the college's failings, she said, even if it doesn't accept liability.

"I was stunned," Schuster said in a phone interview. "I've seen settlements with high prices before. This was high price, but all these other pieces, the memorial, the scholarship, a mandatory letter of condolence, are highly unusual."

Schuster, an expert witness hired by the attorneys for Larios' family, said Chadron State's demonstrated lack of understanding of the Title IX during depositions coupled with the death of a student by suicide likely played into what she described as an "unprecedented" agreement.

Adele Kimmel, a public justice senior attorney who represented Larios' parents, said colleges and universities across the country "can learn a valuable lesson" from what Chadron State is doing to improve student safety and honor Larios' legacy.

The college did not have a full-time, trained Title IX coordinator before Larios' death, Kimmel said, leaving them without "a critical position for addressing dating and sexual violence."

Schuster said statements given during the depositions showed the officials tasked with conducting Title IX duties, required by federal law, were "grossly" misunderstood.

"They've got to find ways to ensure their key players, Title IX coordinators, investigators, appeals officers and others not only attend training but understand the standards and frameworks they are responsible for overseeing," Schuster said.

Martin said Chadron State had a part-time trained Title IX coordinator at the time of Larios' suicide, and was forming plans to make that a full-time position.

He added no employees were disciplined following Larios' death, nor has the college changed any of its policies for how it handles Title IX cases.

In her statement, Kimmel said the college appears to have taken a step in the right direction in protecting current and future students by transitioning to a full-time Title IX coordinator.

"This and other changes the college has made in the last few years, combined with its embracing outside review of its Title IX compliance, set a good example for other schools," she said. "It also honors the spirit of Fatima's legacy of helping others and championing change."

The Nebraska State College System said its campuses in Chadron, Peru and Wayne have, like other colleges and universities, "been confronted with issues of dating violence and suicide."

Judi Yorges, a spokeswoman for the system, said administrators are working to improve its system for protecting students who experience sexual violence and harassment.

"We commit significant resources to meet these challenges, and this settlement offers us the opportunity to work with the family, to not only honor Fatima, but to continue to bring awareness to the issues and hopefully prevent these tragedies from happening in the future," Yorges said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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