A former Dixie State University student is turning to the courts to rectify what she calls “egregious” behavior by officials on the St. George campus, stemming from her complaints of sexual harassment against faculty members and subsequent expulsion from the school.
Lawyers for Victoria Willard notified Dixie administrators of their intent to pursue litigation last month, and Willard said she’s hopeful a court challenge can prompt institutional changes related to the school’s sexual misconduct procedures.
“I hope that they can become aware and correct their current, inexcusable practices,” Willard told The Salt Lake Tribune. “They very aggressively denied me my educational opportunities.”
Willard, who has since moved to New York to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, said her lawsuit will seek monetary damages to reflect the impact that Dixie’s actions had on her academic and professional career.
Willard said she was subjected to lewd comments and unwanted touching by members of Dixie faculty beginning in 2014. In January 2016, she made a report to the school’s Title IX Office, which oversees campus compliance with federal sex-discrimination laws.
Her complaints were not substantiated by campus investigators and in August 2016, the university launched its own investigation into alleged misconduct by Willard. She was ultimately expelled on charges of stalking a faculty member, copying a school key and being intoxicated at a campus event — allegations Willard has denied.
The former student believes her case was mishandled by the school and that staff retaliated against her. In May, Willard filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which launched an investigation into the school the following month.
“I was out of school for a full year,” she said of her expulsion. “They timed it to kind of have the most damage that it could to my educational prospects.”
OCR closed its investigation into Dixie State University this month. At the time of the investigation, Dixie was one of four Utah higher education campuses under review by OCR.
The university released a written statement in response to the termination of OCR’s review, stressing the commitment of its administrators to ensuring the safety and security of all students.
“The University is dedicated to cooperating with the United State Department of Education Office for Civil Rights any time it’s asked, as it did in this case,” the university said. “The Office for Civil Rights closed the complaint as it did not find a sufficient deficiency that would indicate that the University violated Title IX.
“The University appreciates the Office for Civil Rights’ commitment to this matter,” the statement said.
Dixie State University spokeswoman Jyl Hall declined to comment on Willard’s notice of legal action.
Willard said the OCR investigation was focused on procedural issues — particularly the timeline of Dixie’s response to her original report — and did not address many of the issues involved in her case.
“It’s in no way a vindication of the school’s behavior,” she said.