Woman suing BYU-Idaho, widow for alleged sexual assault from now-deceased professor

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The Thomas E. Ricks Building houses the sociology and social work programs at BYU-Idaho | Myles Primm, EastIdahoNews.com

REXBURG — A former Brigham Young University-Idaho student claims she was repeatedly sexually assaulted by a now-deceased professor between 2014 and 2016.

The female student, whom EastIdahoNews.com has chosen not to identify, filed a Title IX lawsuit against BYU-Idaho in federal court. Title IX bars sexual discrimination on campus and ensures that every university and college receiving money from the federal government investigates and resolves complaints of sexual violence.

In the 27-page lawsuit, the woman, who is disabled, alleges that Stephen Stokes, a sociology professor, intentionally targeted her as a “vulnerable person whom he could groom for a sexual relationship.” Stokes is accused of using “his knowledge of (the woman’s) disabilities to coerce (her) into an unwelcomed and unwanted sexual relationship.”

The lawsuit asserts at least five school officials were aware of the abuse, but it was not reported to the Title IX coordinator for investigation.

The university and Stokes’ wife, Susan, are listed as defendants in the case. They adamantly deny the allegations.

Both sides are demanding a jury trial to state their arguments.

This case was filed amidst changes to the Title IX policies at BYU-Idaho and other educational facilities owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The changes aims to “encourage the reporting of sexual misconduct” by giving victims or witnesses of sexual assault guarantees of confidentiality, amnesty and leniency.

Stephen Stokes was never accused or charged of any sex crime in Idaho during his life. He died in July 2016 due to complications from heart surgery. Stokes was a “beloved professor” who was missed by faculty and students, according to the BYU-Idaho Scroll.

The lawsuit was filed five months after his death and amended in March.

THE ALLEGATIONS

In the complaint, the woman is described as being disabled due to a number of mental illnesses, including post traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, severe anxiety, panic disorder, anorexia and Stockholm syndrome. Her disabilities allowed her to obtain disability accommodations from the school.

Court records indicate the woman met Stokes in 2014 at BYU-Idaho. The two developed a friendship after she discovered Stokes had known her deceased father.

Stokes is said to have encouraged her to join the social work program and promised he would become her faculty advisor. Stokes allegedly took a heightened interest in her and when she joined the program, she told him about her mental issues.

The woman also confided to Stokes that she was experiencing financial problems as a single mother. Stokes arranged for her to get food from the food bank and advocated on her behalf at BYU-Idaho.

The woman asserts her contact with Stokes became more frequent and he confessed to her that he was experiencing marital problems. He is said to have mentioned that God brought the two of them together.

“Stokes told her that Heavenly Father placed her in his life for a reason and that (Stokes was) supposed to show her what it feels like to be cared for … and that God had revealed her goodness to him and that he had been given the sacred privilege to help her,” court documents state.

The woman claims the relationship escalated to hugging in his office and then to physical massage or “spinal touch” sessions to help her relieve severe anxiety. In court documents, she alleges the touching made her anxiousness worse.

In the fall of 2014, court documents state one of the spinal touch sessions ended with sexual activity. Afterward she said it became a regular part of their interaction, and Stokes used God and religion on multiple occasions to justify sexual advances.

In January 2015, the woman took a job as his teaching assistant and she claims Stokes indicated he wanted a more permanent relationship.

“During her employment, (Stokes) continued to insist on providing ‘therapeutic’ rubbing and touching to ‘assist’ (her) in managing her anxiety,” court documents show. “To the contrary, her anxiety became unmanageable at this time.”

She saw doctors 14 times between January 2015 and July 2016 to get medication for anxiety or panic attacks exacerbated “by Stokes’ aggressive harassment, stalking and sexual assault and battery,” according to court documents.

Between April 2015 to July 2016, she says, that sexual contact occurred at least three times per week in BYU-Idaho parking lots, classrooms, a campus greenhouse and at her home.

She began to skip school to avoid Stokes, but she said he would show up at her house, at church and at family events. He is said to have told her that “he was her loving husband sent by God.”

“(She) wanted to end this harmful relationship, but felt trapped. Stokes had been so kind to (her) as a father figure when they first met, but she wanted nothing to do with his sexual advances and obsession with her as his ‘wife,'” documents show. “She came to believe if she ended the relationship Stokes would retaliate against her and ensure she could not complete her degree.”

The woman told a friend and fellow social work student about the relationship. The friend advised that she report Stokes to university officials. The friend also told a school counselor at the BYU-Idaho Counseling Center about the relationship and said she was going to report Stokes.

The plaintiff claims Stokes found out about the friend. He threatened to cancel the friend’s internship if she “continued to meddle in their relationship,” the plaintiff said.

Stokes came up with a plan to tell administrators about the relationship, “but to explain their relationship in a way that would not point to any misconduct on Stokes’ part,” the plaintiff said.

The woman and the friend spoke with department administrators, according to court documents. The woman initially disclosed that she was in a relationship with Stokes that involved “kissing and leg rubbing,” but was not sexual. She is said to have also told administrators that Stokes had “taken over her life.”

Department leaders met with Stokes to discuss the allegations.

“After a matter of minutes Stokes exited the room smiling triumphantly and reported to (the woman) that everything was fine and thanked her for ‘saving him,'” court documents state.

The next day Stokes received a letter of reprimand from the department chair for having an inappropriate relationship with a student and he was advised to stop to avoid further disciplinary action, according to the lawsuit. No other action was taken.

The woman claims even after the reprimand, Stokes “continued to regularly sexually assault and batter (her) on the BYU-Idaho campus and in her home.” Stokes is said to have called and texted the woman up to the time he died on July 1, 2016.

Later, the woman was put on academic suspension for poor grades. She said it was due to missed classes from trying to avoid Stokes and from anxiety that came with the relationship.

She also said due to the lawsuit, she was denied an ecclesiastical endorsement, which is needed to attend BYU-Idaho.

Stephen Stokes | BYU-Idaho Scroll

BACKGROUND

This federal lawsuit against BYU-Idaho is not the first legal action taken by the female plaintiff against the Stokes estate. In October 2016, the woman filed a claim in Madison County against the estate of Stephen Stokes in excess of $1 million. She was claiming damages for sexual assault, sexual battery, and infliction of negligent and intentional emotional stress. Her attorney said that the case is still active and is pending the results of the federal case.

CLAIM FOR DAMAGES

The woman is being represented by Holden, Kidwell Hahn & Crapo in Idaho Falls. When asked about their client, the law firm issued the following statement:

“In spite of the tragic events (the plaintiff) endured from a trusted professor, she is, and intends to remain, a faithful member of the Mormon church. Unfortunately, (her) disabilities make her extremely vulnerable to manipulation and abuse, which she was not prepared to encounter on the campus of BYU-Idaho.”

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages from BYU-Idaho and the Stokes estate on seven counts:

  1. That BYU-Idaho was a hostile work environment where the plaintiff was sexually harassed and that although the harassment was reported to administrators, no one took corrective measures on her behalf or reported the conduct to the Title IX coordinator as per BYU-Idaho’s Sexual Misconduct Policy.
  2. The plaintiff was subjected to teacher-on-student sexual harassment based on the fact Stokes had the power to harm the plaintiff’s ability to complete her education. Also that BYU-Idaho acted with indifference to the abuse and discrimination and as a result the woman continues to suffer emotional distress and humiliation.
  3. That the school violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because Stokes knew about her disabilities and proceeded to take advantage of her with unwanted sexual advances.
  4. That BYU-Idaho violated the Human Rights Act because Stokes, her superior when she was his teaching assistant, discriminated against her based on gender.
  5. The plaintiff claims that Susan Stokes, a representative of her husband’s estate, is liable for the intentional infliction of emotional distress and for Stephen Stokes’ treatment of the plaintiff.
  6. The plaintiff claims Susan Stokes is also liable for negligent infliction of emotional distress because Stephen Stokes was aware he was in breach of a standard of conduct.
  7. That Stephen Stokes did sexually assault and batter the woman despite her repeated protests and that he used her vulnerabilities to force her into a sexual relationship.

BYU-IDAHO’S RESPONSE

With few exceptions, BYU-Idaho and Susan Stokes adamantly deny the allegations made against them by the plaintiff. They imply her story of a sexual relationship with Stokes was made up only after his death.

BYU-Idaho spokesman Brett Crandall issued the following statement about the case:

“Brigham Young University-Idaho is committed to promoting and maintaining a safe and respectful environment for the campus community. It is the university’s policy to take immediate and appropriate steps to stop sexual harassment, prevent any recurrence and address its effects. BYU-Idaho confirms it has reviewed allegations of sexual harassment concerning a former employee who passed away in July 2016. The university was unaware of these allegations prior to the employee’s death and is confident it has acted appropriately. Moreover, the university is not aware of any violations of state or federal law. In its court submissions, BYU-Idaho has responded to the lawsuit’s specific allegations and is confident the legal system will determine the truth of this case and will act accordingly.”

BYU-Idaho and Susan Stokes are being represented by Boise law firm Andersen, Schwartzman, Woodard and Brailsford. In its rebuttal to the lawsuit, the university denies discriminating against the plaintiff. BYU-Idaho also says administrators had no knowledge of any harassment or abuse.

“When plaintiff met with BYU-I before Stokes’ death, she did not reveal a physical or romantic relationship. Contrary to (her complaint), she did not mention any harassment or abuse,” according to a university statement in court records.

Instead, BYU-Idaho claims Stokes’ interactions with the plaintiff were limited to emotional and financial support.

“It was not until after Stokes’ death that plaintiff indicated she had a consensual romantic relationship with Stokes. Then months after Stokes’ death and after hiring an attorney and demanding significant sums of money, plaintiff changed her story to claim harassment and abuse,” the statement reads.

The university admits Stokes did help the plaintiff pay for groceries, medication and helped her in a legal matter. But it denies the woman ever told any administrator that there was a physical or romantic relationship with Stokes.

BYU-Idaho also asserts the plaintiff’s friend denied knowing anything about a physical relationship between her and Stokes.

EastIdahoNews.com reached out to the friend for comment but has not received a response.

The university said it sent a letter to Stokes directing him to cease all non-academic interactions with the plaintiff. However, nothing reported to BYU-Idaho at the time required a Title IX investigation because all involved said there had been no discrimination or harassment, according to the university.

BYU-Idaho said the plaintiff told several individuals about a consensual romantic relationship after Stokes’ death. Upon hearing those rumors, the Title IX coordinator reached out to the plaintiff multiple times, but she did not meet with him.

BYU-Idaho claims it exercised reasonable care to protect the plaintiff and that it did not know about Stokes’ alleged conduct. The university denies it discriminated against her based on her gender or disability or that she suffered any damages as a result of its actions.

The lawsuit is currently in the discovery phase. No trial date has been set.

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