Mom Sues College for Daughter's Suicide After It Ignored Rape Case -- & She's Right

All suicides are tragic, but the circumstances surrounding one recent death are particularly heartbreaking (not to mention infuriating). A student at William Paterson University, 21-year-old Cherelle Jovanna Locklear, hanged herself after allegedly being raped at a frat party -- and now her mother is suing the school, claiming that her daughter's death could have been prevented if the university had investigated the crime properly.

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According to court documents, Locklear didn't report the rape -- which occurred in November 2015 -- to school or police right away; it wasn't until she attempted to kill herself by overdosing on pills less than a month later that she told an authority.

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But after sharing her story (and the name of her attacker) with Victim Services Coordinator Theresa A Bivaletz, she still didn't receive any help -- in fact, according to the lawsuit, Bivaletz waited weeks to tell campus police, even though, by law, sexual assault reports must be reported immediately. Apparently, even after police were notified, nothing happened -- to this day, the alleged rapist "has neither been confronted or charged," claims 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. As a result, Cherelle remained in constant fear that the rapist would be in her classes, or could be just around any corner.

What an absolutely horrible way to exist. It's no wonder this poor girl was driven to end her life -- a life that was full of promise and opportunities that she'll never get to take. Just look at this smile -- what were Locklear's dreams and ambitions? Sadly, we'll never know:

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Locklear was a person. A valuable member of her college community. So why didn't William Paterson University take her claims seriously? What can they possibly say to explain themselves or defend their actions?

At this point, they're not saying much -- at least not if the following statement released by the university is any indication:

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.

Wait, they will continue to focus on the safety and well-being of all of its members? Because it doesn't seem like they were focused on Locklear's safety or well-being at all. And, interestingly, this isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened at William Paterson; last year, five male students were charged with sexually assaulting a woman in a residence hall,  and the charges were later dismissed. 

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Unfortunately, as we're all aware, this problem isn't unique to William Paterson. Sexual assault is a huge problem on far too many college campuses across the country: According to RAINN, 11.2 percent of all college students experience rape or sexual assault "through physical force, violence, or incapacitation" but just 20 percent of female student survivors ages 18 to 24 report crimes against them to law enforcement. 

What about the other 80 percent of assaulted women? Could it be that maybe they don't bother reporting their assaults because they're afraid no one will do anything about it anyway? To admit that you're a survivor of sexual violence takes a tremendous amount of courage under the best of circumstances, but to risk that level of vulnerability knowing that your claims will likely be dismissed is too devastating a prospect for many.

Consider the Brock Turner case, or the Columbia student who carried a mattress around campus in protest of how her alleged rape was mishandled. Sexual predators too often aren't held accountable for their crimes, and that is a crime in itself. Something clearly needs to change -- soon -- before more innocent lives are destroyed, or even lost.

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As a woman -- and the mother of a teenage daughter -- I hover between being outraged and terrified over the situation, but I have to hope that the more attention these cases get, the closer we'll come to making colleges care about keeping our kids safe. I have to hope that Locklear's death was not in vain.


Image via Flickr/Scott McDonough

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