Suicide of Toronto woman on swimming scholarship prompts changes at U.S. school

ST. LOUIS - The suicide of a young Toronto woman has prompted the University of Missouri, where she went on a swimming scholarship, to bolster its mental health services.

Sasha Menu Courey, 20, killed herself in June 2011 in a Boston psychiatric hospital soon after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and two months after an earlier suicide attempt.

Her parents, Mike Menu and Lynn Courey, have channelled their grief into a mental-health foundation named in her memory. They want accountability from the school and say the university and its athletics department should have by now investigated her alleged off-campus rape by as many as three football players in February 2010.

Late Wednesday, the school's Board of Curators voted to hire a law firm to review the school's handling of the case.

"We just want to make sure that changes are made," Mike Menu said. "We need more than Band-Aids. We need a transformation."

University leaders say they didn't learn about the purported attack until after Menu Courey committed suicide 16 months later. They also said they followed the letter of the law because they didn't have specific knowledge of the attack and no victim to interview.

University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe spoke personally Wednesday about the young swimmer's death, noting that his own daughter is a first-year college athlete.

"One of our students is dead," he said. "And I don't want to feel that anymore."

Missouri didn't immediately investigate the death of Menu Courey, who by then had withdrawn from classes at the university's urging and lost her financial aid.

The school said in a statement Tuesday that a 2012 Columbia Daily Tribune article about Menu Courey's suicide briefly alluded to the alleged assault, but didn't meet the legal standard that the school "reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment."

The school says Menu Courey's parents ignored its request for more information a year ago after it discovered an online chat transcript with a campus rape counsellor in which Menu Courey mentioned an earlier attack.

Missouri initially responded to an ESPN story about the swimmer by defending its handling of the case while criticizing the news organization's "skewed and flawed reporting." But soon after, the university said it was turning over information on the case to Columbia police, since the alleged attack happened off-campus.

A man identified in the ESPN story as a close friend of Menu Courey's said he had also seen a tape of the alleged incident and three football players were involved. But that tape was now missing, he told ESPN.

Records indicated Menu Courey spoke about her assault in 2010 to campus personnel, including two doctors, according to the ESPN report, which also said an athletic department administrator knew of her claim. The university has denied the administrator was told about the assault.

Schools across the U.S. are spending more time and money fighting campus rape in response to stricter federal enforcement of gender discrimination laws.

The White House has called it a public health epidemic, and President Barack Obama last week announced the formation of a new task force on university sex assault, citing statistics that show one in five female students are assaulted while in college, but only one in eight victims report attacks.

But balancing the needs of individual students — including those who report attacks but don't want a criminal investigation — with protecting the larger community is vexing for many schools.

Colleges and universities are also required to report campus crimes to the federal government under a 1990 law known as the Clery Act.

At least 50 schools have bolstered their efforts in recent years. Complaints of violations related to sexual violence are also increasing, a sign Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, attributes to new vigilance on campus.

The University of Missouri's efforts to reduce sexual violence on campus are extensive. A campus equity office led by a lawyer oversees compliance with Title IX, the federal law more commonly known for ensuring equal participation by women in college sports but also has broader discrimination protections. There also is counselling and help available through the campus women's centre and the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center.

Students who eschew legal intervention can still seek a campus disciplinary hearing. And the university can also help students switch dorms or class schedules or bar contact outright.

"There are many resources out there, but there's not really any (sense) that she (Menu Courey) was provided with those resources," said Zachary Wilson, development director of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

"It's difficult for sexual assault survivors to go at it alone."

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