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Niagara U hires law firm to investigate dean’s handling of rape allegation

LEWISTON – Niagara University placed its dean of students on administrative leave Monday and hired a Buffalo law firm to conduct an independent investigation of her response to a rape allegation against an unidentified member of the university’s men’s basketball team.

The dean, Marjean C. “Carrie” McLaughlin, was called out over the weekend by third-year social work student Sarah Joslin, who late Friday posted an online petition on the website, accusing McLaughlin of taking the player’s side after a female student allegedly reported to her that she had been raped on campus by a basketball player.

In a statement Monday, university Executive Vice President Debra A. Colley said, “Administrative leave is not punitive, but is a mechanism to ensure matters of grave seriousness can be addressed promptly and thoroughly, with respect to all individuals involved.”

Niagara is hiring the Buffalo law firm Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria to conduct “an investigation into the concerns raised by our students,” Colley announced.

The university has neither confirmed nor denied that the alleged rape ever took place. Colley said federal laws and the university’s own policies make student records “very confidential.”

But Colley added, “A lack of detailed information about a specific incident should never be misconstrued as a lack of action. Again, our overriding concern is the safety and well-being of our students and employees.”

Joslin’s petition accused McLaughlin of telling the unnamed woman “that by coming forward with the fact that she had been assaulted, she was trying to ruin (the player’s) career.”

Joslin, who went through a 40-hour training course as a rape crisis advocate at the YWCA of Niagara last year, alleged in the petition, “Many students heard about this situation, and since then have refused to come forth about their own situations regarding sexual harassment and assault. We cannot have someone in the position of dean of students who does not make survivors feel safe and comfortable in telling their stories.”

The petition, seeking McLaughlin’s dismissal, drew nearly 1,300 signatures by Monday afternoon, and many signers accused the dean, who came to Niagara four years ago, of harassing and belittling students in other incidents.

“She does not care about her students. She does not care about survivors. She makes students feel uncomfortable and therefore things are happening that the school should know about but doesn’t because she has created a toxic environment,” Joslin’s petition said.

Colley said, “When Niagara University receives complaints related to sexual assault, we investigate them promptly. This includes allegations that an employee or office has mishandled a matter. We will investigate these concerns immediately and ensure our community is made aware of our next steps. Niagara University has a well-developed sexual assault policy that provides multiple methods of reporting assault and trauma. This is to enable students to feel safe throughout the process. If a student does not feel comfortable reporting to a certain member of the staff, she or he has other options, both on and off campus.”

She said Niagara follows the law by reporting the matter anonymously to federal authorities. “Law enforcement notification is solely at the direction of the victim, but we always encourage that such notifications be made,” Colley said.

Those provisions are taken from the state’s “Enough Is Enough” law, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed July 7 in response to a series of controversies regarding sexual assaults on campuses nationwide.

The law includes a detailed definition of sexual consent and required all colleges to distribute a Student Bill of Rights that, among other things, informs them that they have the right to report sexual assaults to police.

It also requires training on the topic for administrators and staff, and mandated reporting of all incidents of sexual violence, including their outcome, to the state Education Department.

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., also has been pushing for a similar law on the federal level. The U.S. Department of Education said colleges reported more than 5,000 sexual assaults in 2013, but a study by the Justice Department a year ago concluded that 80 percent of campus sexual assaults are never reported by the victims.

Colley said, “In keeping with our Catholic and Vincentian mission, Niagara University strives to inspire respect for the God-given dignity of every person and all faith traditions. The issues being spoken of are serious and very concerning. I would encourage everyone to consider our institution’s core value of respect for every person as we work with our students to address their concerns.”

Joslin tweeted Monday afternoon, “I took action not because I hate my school, but rather because I love my school, and know it can be better.”