UT pays $2.5 million to settle lawsuit that claimed 'indifference to sexual assault'

Tennessee coaches appear at a news conference on Feb. 23, 2016, in Knoxville. The coaches held a news conference two weeks after a group of unidentified women sued the school over its handling of sexual assault complaints made against student-athletes.
photo FILE - In this Oct. 14, 2015, file photo, University of Tennessee Chancellor Jimmy Cheek attends a legislative hearing in Nashville, Tenn. Cheek is resigning to rejoin the faculty. In a Tuesday, June 21, 2016, announcement, the university praised Cheek for increased diversity at the school, record fundraising and $1 billion in new construction and renovation. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig, File)
photo University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro

A nearly $2.5 million settlement has been reached in the Title IX lawsuit filed by eight women against the University of Tennessee.

The lawsuit claims the university violated Title IX regulations through a policy of indifference toward sexual assaults committed by athletes, creating a hostile sexual environment for female students.

In a statement on the agreement released Wednesday morning, David Randolph Smith, attorney for the plaintiffs, said "We are satisfied that, while universities everywhere struggle with these issues, the University of Tennessee has made significant progress in the way they educate and respond to sexual assault cases."

Smith said he hopes UT will be a leader in "awareness, education support and aggressive response to these issues."

The issue of sexual assault on college campuses and the definition of consent have stirred debate in recent years. Headlines and online conversations about the rape convictions of two former Vanderbilt University football players and the controversial six-month jail sentence handed to a former Stanford University swimmer after he was found guilty of sexual assault have kept the topic in the spotlight.

Jimmy Cheek, University of Tennessee at Knoxville chancellor, said no university is able to prevent every incidence of students, faculty or staff using bad judgment. But he said UT's goal is to continue to create awareness, educate and prevent discrimination and abuse, and be prepared to properly handle such situations when they arise.

"We've come a long way in recent years, and we are working every day to be even better," Cheek said in a statement.

He praised the settlement, adding that the university soon will announce a new round of initiatives for the campus. Cheek said increased funding will be provided to areas related to handling sexual assaults, student conduct, educational programming and student well-being.

Joe DiPietro, president of the University of Tennessee system, also highlighted in a statement the progress the system has made in recent years to "create awareness of, respond to and provide support around issues related to sexual assault and sexual misconduct."

He said in coming weeks he will appoint an independent commission to review existing programs and efforts involving Title IX issues and make recommendations to strengthen such activities on all of the university's campuses.

According to UT, talk of a settlement has been "off and on" since before the lawsuit was filed in February, and the current negotiations began in April.

School officials said the UT Athletics Department and UT Central Administration will split equally the payment of the settlement, and no taxpayer dollars, donor funds, student tuition or fees will be used.

The settlement comes less than a week before SEC Media Days is scheduled to begin, a time when college football coaches across the Southeastern Conference talk to media about the upcoming season.

The University of Tennessee at Knoxville's football team has been under public scrutiny since the lawsuit was filed.

Though this Title IX lawsuit has been settled, two former UT football players, star linebacker A.J. Johnson and cornerback Michael Williams, still face charges of aggravated rape and aiding and abetting aggravated rape in connection with a 2014 incident.

Johnson and Williams are among at least six players on UT's fall 2014 roster who have been accused of sexual assault, and both of the men were named in the Title IX lawsuit.

The plaintiffs in the Title IX lawsuit say the university interfered with the disciplinary process to favor male athletes. The lawsuit also claims that policies made students more vulnerable to sexual assault and that the school had a "deliberate indifference and a clearly unreasonable response after a sexual assault that caused a student to endure additional harassment."

UT has settled two other high-profile gender discrimination lawsuits in recent years.

In January the university agreed to settle for more than $750,000 a lawsuit filed by three female employees working in the athletic department. That lawsuit claimed the women received less compensation than employees holding similar positions and performing comparable tasks for men's teams. The plaintiffs said the discrepancy resulted from their gender or their affiliation with women's teams.

UT also settled a lawsuit filed by Debby Jennings, the school's former athletics department official, for $320,000 in 2014. Jennings claimed she was forced to retire early from the school where she worked for 35 years because of her sex.

The expense of continued litigation is why UT decided to settle both lawsuits, school officials said at the time. That also is why the university chose to settle the Title IX lawsuit.

Raja Jubran, UT Board of Trustees vice chairman, said settling the most recent Title IX case was the right thing to do.

"One side ultimately would have won in court several years from now, and we felt confident about our legal position," he said in a statement. "But I truly believe that both sides would have lost. The intangible costs of emotional stress to those involved and the distraction to all of our positive progress at UT, over and above actual legal costs, would have been exorbitant."

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.