Lawsuit alleges sexual assault, cover up

FLORENCE — University of North Alabama Board of Trustees are set to meet at 4 p.m. today in a special session to discuss pending legal matters, and among them could be a lawsuit alleging it covered up a sexual assault against a student by a professor.

In a 17-page federal lawsuit filed last week, the former UNA student, identified only as Jane Doe, alleges former UNA business professor David Dickerson sexually assaulted her while on a university-related trip to Orlando for a sales conference and competition.

The lawsuit claims the university violated Title IX of the Education Acts and “Alabama state law for negligent hiring, negligent supervision, negligent and/or malicious retention, negligent training and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The lawsuit alleges the student, on Nov. 8, 2015, went to the pool area of the hotel at which the UNA group stayed during the competition. While at the pool, according to the lawsuit, Dickerson came to the pool and repeatedly touched and pawed at the student while in the pool and hot tub. After repeated advances by Dickerson, the student returned to her hotel room, the lawsuit states.

The evening of that same day, according to the lawsuit the student went with her roommate on the trip, also a UNA student, to Universal Studios. While at Universal Studios, the students received a phone call from Dickerson, who “insisted he pick them up from the theme park and take them to dinner.”

The lawsuit states the student did not tell her roommate about the earlier incident and agreed to go to dinner because she did not know “how to react in front of her roommate.”

At dinner, the lawsuit alleges Dickerson purchased alcoholic beverages for the two female students. The roommate left the restaurant, stating she would return but never did.

The lawsuit states that after dinner Jane Doe remembered being “in and out of consciousness and being walked back to the hotel” by Dickerson. The student recalled being undressed by Dickerson, but “not having the physical strength to fight” Dickerson. When she regained consciousness, the lawsuit states, the student was naked, but immediately dressed and left the room.

She was contacted later by Dickerson who stated, “I want us to be good friends,” according to the lawsuit.

Unbeknownst to the student, two male UNA students on the trip took photos of the interaction at the pool. Those students showed the photos to another former faculty member, Jerome Gafford. After the photos were shared, Jana Beaver, now associate dean of the College of Business, sent a text message to the student asking her to speak with Gafford about the incident, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit states Beaver instructed the student to not attend class or come to campus, and to avoid being alone in downtown Florence because Dickerson had been observed there.

The lawsuit alleges the university attempted to hide the incident by not taking a written account from the student, or reporting the incident to police.

The student received counseling services through the university Student Counseling Center and, according to the lawsuit, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jennifer Berry, a counselor at the center indicated the student was eligible for medical leave from the school, but, according to the lawsuit, the student met with David Shields, vice president of student affairs, and was told “let’s call it an academic leave.”

The lawsuit states this is “clear and direct action to cover up the underlying reason” for the absence from school.

The lawsuit also claims the university was negligent by not completing a background check of Dickerson. Dickerson, according to the lawsuit, previously was charged with rape and assault.

The university said in a statement it denies the allegations and would “vigorously defend against those claims in litigation.”

In its statement, the university notes it is aware of “no criminal charges against the professor the plaintiff accuses of sexual assault in her civil lawsuit seeking money damages from UNA.”

“UNA is proud our American justice system also affords civil defendants an opportunity to set the record straight at the courthouse, and the university intends to take full advantage of that opportunity in this case,” the university statement said.

The former student is seeking unspecified monetary damages, including reimbursement and prepayment of tuition and related expenses, expenses incurred because of the alleged assault, damages for emotional pain and suffering, and loss of “enjoyment of life.”

The lawsuit also asks that UNA be made to establish a “zero tolerance” policy that would require mandatory investigations into allegations of sexual assault by an employee to a student and immediate termination.

Trustees are expected to go into a closed-door session to discuss the legal matters. The board is not expected to take any action today during the meeting.

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