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How Title IX Failed These Northwestern CheerleadersA former cheerleader from Northwestern University has filed a lawsuit against the school, claiming its athletic department trafficked cheerleaders to entice fans and donors, and refused to launch a formal investigation when she complained. Further, because the Title IX office at the university relegated the complainant to witness status, she was barred from any information regarding her rights – which meant she was kept in the dark about any investigation or its outcome.

The Chicago Tribune reports that, in court papers filed on January 29, Hayden Richardson alleges she and other cheerleaders were forced to interact and mingle with intoxicated fans and donors at university-sanctioned events, where they were groped and sexually harassed. According to the lawsuit, “It became clear to (Richardson) that the cheerleaders were being presented as sex objects to titillate the men that funded the majority of Northwestern’s athletics programs. After all, the happier these men were, the more money the university would receive from them.”

These incidents happened during several encounters between 2018 and 2019, after Richardson had transferred to Northwestern and received nearly $10,000 in cheerleading scholarships. Although she felt uncomfortable and sexually exploited, she was also fearful of the financial consequences of quitting the team. Instead, she relayed her concerns to head coach Pam Bonnevier, who is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Richardson alleges Bonnevier ignored her concerns and continued the mandatory “mingling” with donors, fans, and alumni.

Alleged violation of Title IX policies

Richardson accuses Northwestern, among other things, of violating federal Title IX policies in its handling of her complaints. The lawsuit claims that the university delayed investigating her claims and stripped her of rights to be kept informed about the findings of that investigation.

Title IX provides that a “grievance procedure requires the school’s process be ‘prompt and equitable,’ meaning it must be a timely response to discrimination and provide both parties equivalent rights during the disciplinary process rather than having one-sided due process.”

Because she requested anonymity, Richardson was relegated to the role of witness, rather than complainant. She was asked to gather her own evidence and witness statements before her complaints were even acknowledged. And, by putting her in the witness rather than complainant category, she was effectively shut out of proceedings. A witness is provided anonymity, but they are also provided zero information on any investigation. Richardson was unaware she was being stripped of these rights.

She was made aware that Bonnevier attended training, but it isn’t clear what that training entailed. The lawsuit does note that, although the cheerleaders were not required to attend tailgates after that training, Bonnevier still mandated they attend alumni events, where the harassment continued.

According to the lawsuit, the university did eventually launch an investigation – over a year after Richardon’s initial complaint – but because she was listed as a witness, she still does not know the results.

The Tribune says that Richardson is seeking damages for emotional distress. “Unfortunately I was studying for my LSAT when all of this was unfolding with my team,” she said. “It’s very upsetting to me that it has detracted from my future plans and ability to progress.”

Northwestern issued its own statement and denied any wrongdoing, saying, “We take all complaints seriously, and we appreciate the courage it takes for anyone in our community to come forward to report potential wrongdoing. In this case, the University’s Office of Equity conducted a lengthy and thorough investigation, following University policies and procedures. The cheer coach referenced in the complaint is no longer an employee of the University.”

At McGowan, Hood & Felder, LLC, we represent student victims of sexual harassment and discrimination. We offer compassionate yet aggressive legal advocacy. To schedule a free consultation with one of our South Carolina attorneys, call 803-327-7800, or we invite you to reach out to us through our contact page.