GRAND FORKS — A federal lawsuit claims the University of North Dakota failed to protect a student in the university’s social work program from sexual harassment and abuse and instead “fostered a culture of silence” around reports of sexual misconduct at the university.
The Title IX lawsuit, filed Thursday, March 4, in North Dakota District Court, details alleged instances of sexual harassment and assault suffered in 2018 by Aereauna Houle, a student at the time. The lawsuit claims former UND professor Andrew Quinn sexually harassed and abused Houle.
While these allegations were reported to university employees, the lawsuit claims UND’s delayed action was “wholly ineffective to stop Quinn’s abuse” of Houle.
“UND fostered a culture of silence around the sexual harassment and abuse of its students,” the lawsuit reads. “... This culture stemmed from … UND’s policy, practice, and/or custom of responding with deliberate indifference to reports of sexual misconduct.”
The lawsuit also claims the university failed to adequately train faculty, staff and students about Title IX, adding that as a result, “UND routinely failed to offer victimized students protections from ongoing harassment and retaliation.”
UND declined to comment on the matter, citing the pending litigation. Leo Wilking, who has previously served as an attorney for Quinn, was not immediately available for comment reached Thursday by Forum News Service.
Houle agreed to be named in the court filings and to be interviewed by Forum News Service.
“To me, silence is not about comfort,” Houle said. “Speaking and breaking that silence … that's about liberation, and a sense of freedom and empowerment that would otherwise be stripped away from me.”
The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages of more than $75,000.
Tim Purdon, one of Houle’s attorneys and a former U.S. attorney for North Dakota, said his team attempted to privately resolve the matter with the university in the last few weeks, but nothing came of the discussions. Purdon said his team was forced to go public with the allegations after the failed discussions.
The 23-page civil complaint alleges that when Houle sought a letter of recommendation for graduate school from Quinn, her UND-assigned academic adviser, he started a “campaign of quid pro quo sexual harassment against her.”
Quinn sent almost daily communications to Houle seeking personal information about her life, according to the lawsuit. However, when she reported the harassment to UND, the suit alleges university officials discouraged her from taking action by claiming nothing would be done. One official recommended that Houle instead report the harassment to the North Dakota Board of Social Work Examiners.
Quinn worked at UND from 2005 until 2019. According to files and documents the Herald obtained from UND through an open-records request in 2020, Quinn was placed on paid administrative leave on Jan. 17, 2019.
A letter in Quinn’s file noted that the university was taking action against Quinn because it “received information that (he) engaged in a relationship with a student that may violate the University’s Sexual and Gender-based misconduct policy and or the university’s consensual relationship policy.”
The university later told Quinn he must stay away from the alleged victim and also stay away from campus. But a later letter, sent on Feb. 6, 2019, alleged he had “failed to follow this directive multiple times.”
According to those documents, UND later declared to Quinn its intent to dismiss him. He resigned in May 2019.
The lawsuit alleges UND is liable under Title IX — a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination within education — “for perpetuating a sexually hostile environment on campus,” leaving Houle at heightened risk for sexual harassment, and demonstrating deliberate indifference toward Quinn’s misconduct that escalated to sexual assault.
According to the complaint, while UND forced Houle out of her internship to impede her graduation, “it offered Quinn a sweetheart deal to voluntarily resign and thus avoid termination.”
The lawsuit also details previous allegations of sexual harassment against an unnamed female student in 2016.
Laura Dunn, a nationally known Title IX attorney for L.L. Dunn Law Firm, in Washington, D.C., encouraged any other victims to reach out to their team.