On September 25, 2015, Cherelle Jovanna Locklear, a young, black student at William Paterson University, was allegedly raped at the school's Sigma Pi Fraternity house during a party. She didn't immediately report her rape to the school or the police, according to court documents; only after she attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on pills less than a month later, ending up in the hospital and subsequently in the office of campus Victim Services, did she tell an authority what happened. She opened up to Victim Services Coordinator Theresa A Bivaletz about what she had been going through, but, according to a recently filed lawsuit by her mother, she still didn't receive any help. The 21-year-old hanged herself on November 22, 2015.
Locklear's mother, Marquesa C. Jackson-Locklear, is now suing William Paterson University, the fraternity, Bivaletz, and the officers she claims are involved in failing to properly investigate her daughter's report of rape. The suit alleges that Locklear's death could have been avoided if the institution moved with urgency after being aware of her claims instead of waiting to act.
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Indeed, according to court documents, the University's response to Locklear's sexual assault claims was allegedly riddled with delays. When the student told the Victim Services Coordinator about her rape—naming her assailant—and suicide attempt on October 26, Bivaletz allegedly waited until "sometime in November" to alert the campus police, "despite the requirement that the sexual assault be reported immediately," the lawsuit claims.
Then, the police allegedly failed to perform a thorough investigation of her claims after they were made aware them: To date, "the perpetrator identified by Cherelle has neither been confronted or charged," according to the suit. "The alleged student-rapist was never questioned, disciplined, or otherwise sanctioned for raping Cherelle, and no steps were taken to keep the alleged rapist away from Cherelle," the lawsuit claims. "As a result, Cherelle remained in constant fear that the rapist would be in her classes, or could be just around any corner."
"Federal law requires schools to respond promptly and equitably to complaints—neither of which seem to have happened here," Mahroh Jahangiri with the organization Know Your IX told me in an email after reviewing the lawsuit's claims.
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Jackson-Locklear also alleges in the suit that when she attempted earlier this year to get documentation of the campus's enquiry into her daughter's rape, she had to file 11 requests to get an incident form from Locklear's initial visit to the victim's services coordinator. While the name of Locklear's alleged rapist was redacted from the document that her mother was able to access through the Open Public Records Act, the lawsuit claims that he is a student at William Paterson University and a member of the Sigma Pi Fraternity. When Broadly reached out to the fraternal organization's national chapter, which is named in the lawsuit as a defendant, its executive director Jason Walker contradicted this as a matter of technicality. He said "the student in question" was a member of the fraternity but he was expelled in 2014 for an unrelated incident and was not a member of Sigma Pi when the rape allegedly happened.
"However, given that the incident occurred at an off-campus property where active members lived, once we learned of this incident, we took immediate action, including initiating an internal review and working with the University during its investigation," he continued in an email. "The safety and security of our members and all those within the campus community remains our top priority and we will continue to take aggressive action in response to any allegations of sexual assault."
When I asked Walker to follow up on the extent of the fraternity's involvement in the investigation and if the alleged perpetrator was questioned as a result of Sigma Pi's "internal review"—and the extent of the investigation in general—he declined to comment further.
(This exchange happened after Walker originally replied to my inquiry with, "At this time Sigma Pi Fraternity is not aware if we are or are not included in a lawsuit filed by the family of Charella. We are saddened by the loss of a person at such a young age; however we have not been served with a lawsuit and cannot comment at this time.")
Jackson-Locklear's lawyers did not respond to a request for comment, but they are holding a press conference tomorrow.
It's worth nothing that the university has previously been accused of mishandling sexual assault cases on its campus. Last year, five male students at the school were charged with sexually assaulting a woman in a residence hall but the charges against them were dismissed.
William Paterson University issued a statement on Tuesday that said, "We are, of course, saddened by the loss of a student under any circumstances, and particularly when the loss comes about by suicide. We are aware of the lawsuit filed by the student's mother and are unable to comment on any such legal matters. The university will continue to focus on the safety and well-being of all of its members and offers a variety of counseling resources for students who seek help with personal challenges."
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The victim's mother is seeking a jury trial for the school's alleged Title IX violation, the failure to train the campus police "on how to properly investigate allegations of sexual misconduct," and the intentional infliction of emotional stress that "as a direct and proximate result Cherelle suffered wrongful death" and immeasurable physical and emotional injury prior to her death," the lawsuit claims.
Jackson-Locklear is also seeking damages against Sigma Pi National for "failing to adequately train Sigma Pi Local and its members and officers on risk management… and sexual abuse and rape prevention." The fraternity Sigma Pi has also been in the news for rape allegations before; an 18-year-old student was reportedly raped at the frat house on the Arkansas State University campus.