Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual assault. If you need to report or discuss a sexual assault, you can call the Rape & Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.
Marissa Root first went to a Salt Lake County hospital, she said, to report that she had been raped by a college football player. Then she went to two Utah universities seeking support — only to be turned away by both.
She initially tried her school, Utah Valley University, where the staff said they couldn’t provide her resources because the alleged perpetrator wasn’t a student there, Root said. They recommended that she go instead to his school, the University of Utah.
At the U., staff said there was nothing they could do for her, either. They told her their obligation was instead to the player, because he was their student, Root said, and never even asked for his name.
In fact, the U. only wanted to know the player’s identity months later, she recalls, after another football player at the university had been accused of raping a minor. They asked then if he was the same student she had said attacked her. When she said he wasn’t, they didn’t contact her again.
Now, Root is suing both institutions — as well as the overarching Utah System of Higher Education — for denying her help.
“You make the big jump to be brave and go talk to someone,” she said. “And so to just be shut down like that was extremely hard on me emotionally. … They offered me nothing.”
In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, Root alleges that the two schools did not meet their legal obligations under Title IX. They could have coordinated to look into her allegations against the player, or at least given her resources for dealing with the aftermath of an assault, the suit says. Instead, Root said, they left her to deal with it alone.
Title IX offices are required by federal law to provide resources for any reporting student who comes in, tailored to that person’s experience and regardless of whether or not they decide to go forward with an investigation. That duty does not change based on what school their alleged perpetrator attends, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, LLC.
Carter added that Title IX does not instruct schools to send their own students to the school of an alleged perpetrator for help; but when that happens, the second school still has a role.
“Legal requirements aside, a ‘pass the buck’ system can be deadly,” Carter said. “While another school’s ability to respond to a victim of sexual misconduct may be limited, it isn’t nonexistent. At a minimum they can provide connections to community resources, ensure that a student gets connected to supportive measures at their home institution, and can consider taking disciplinary action so long as their code provides for it.”
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault victims, but Root agreed to the use of her name.
Her claims come a week after a student at Utah State University, Kaytriauna Flint, filed suit there over allegations that the Logan school brushes aside women who report they have been sexually assaulted by a member of its football team, which she said happened to her.
Both lawsuits are the latest to raise concerns about how several universities and colleges in the state respond to students who report sexual assaults and other crimes. The University of Utah has previously faced criticism and a lawsuit for how it handled student-athlete Lauren McCluskey’s reports, including an officer there showing his co-workers intimate pictures of her that she had submitted as evidence before she was killed by a man she had briefly dated.
There have also been investigations at Brigham Young University over how officers shared information on students reporting assaults with the school’s Honor Code Office. And Utah State University is still under federal monitoring from the Department of Justice — even before controversial recordings about sexual assault from its police chief and football coach became public last week and led the chief to resign and the coach to apologize.
The same attorneys representing Flint, Michael Young and Lauren Hunt, are also representing Root. They say the schools and the Utah System of Higher Education declined to help their client and failed to investigate her alleged assailant — an approach that makes it possible for an accused student to potentially hurt others.
Her lawsuit was filed less than two weeks before the U.’s football team is scheduled to face Ohio State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1. The player that Root alleges assaulted her is now facing criminal charges, and is no longer on the team roster. Sione Lund, a linebacker, has been charged with rape and forcible sodomy.
Lund’s attorney, Tara Isaacson, said in an emailed statement: “I can tell you that Mr. Lund was cooperative with police and provided a detailed explanation of the circumstances in an interview. This was a consensual encounter.”
The Utah System of Higher Education did not immediately respond to request for comment Tuesday.
UVU spokesperson Scott Trotter said the school is “committed to creating a safe and supportive learning and working environment” and takes every report of sexual assault seriously. He said they “disagree with the claims in the lawsuit.”
He noted that staff there “offer support services and resources to victims of sexual violence, regardless of where, when, or how such violence may have occurred. To respect the privacy of those involved and follow federal law, we will not be discussing the specifics of this case.”
The U. also released a statement, saying it “responds to every report of sexual assault with urgency, professionalism, and great care.” With Root’s case, the school added that it discussed the proper processes with her and urged her to reach out to UVU. They also claim that she did not want to share the name of the alleged assailant when she met with staff.
Following her report, the U. said, staff held a training about consent with the entire football team in late October.
The U. also added: “As in all criminal cases, the alleged assailant has a right to due process. Because criminal charges have been filed and litigation is pending in this case, we will respond through the appropriate law enforcement and legal channels. Applicable privacy laws and guidelines will govern the release of any further information regarding either of these individuals.”
Young, Root’s attorney, called the U.’s response “nonsensical,” and said his client reported to their Title IX Office in an effort to protect other women. “It is troubling that the university continues to ignore the safety of women and refuses to learn from past failures,” he said.
A police report
Root had just started her sophomore year at Utah Valley University in the fall of 2019, the lawsuit says, and was excited to go to one of the first parties of the semester with a group of friends.
It was going to be a big bash with students from several schools across the state. Prosecutors say it was at Lund’s house in Holladay.
The lawsuit says Root had met Lund before that night through mutual friends. He’d sent her a couple of messages that she felt were romantic, according to the lawsuit, but she never responded and tried to keep it “amicable but distant.” She warned her friends at the party on Sept. 19, 2019, to help keep her away from him because she wasn’t comfortable, according to the lawsuit.
But she later told police that at some point, he isolated her. They were in his room, and he locked the door, charging documents allege. Root told him, “No” several times, according to charges, and repeated that she did not want to have sex with him. The police documents state that he then forced himself on her.
The document says Root was eventually able to get free, grab her things and leave the house.
Her lawsuit states that she went to the hospital after that with two friends and reported the case several months later to the Unified Police Department.
Police say when they talked to Lund, he acknowledged having a party and said he did have some sexual contact with Root, but he said it was consensual. A swab done in his mouth was compared to a sexual assault examination kit done on Root when she went to the hospital. Investigators say, based on the results, Lund could “not be excluded” as a match.
Lund was originally held in Salt Lake County jail before posting bail. Court records show he has retained an attorney and is undergoing therapy for “emotion regulation.”
He was dismissed from the U.’s football team in March 2020, though his coach never publicly said why. On Tuesday, the U. confirmed that action came “as a result of the pending criminal case.”
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill confirmed that his office is now prosecuting Lund.
“We certainly felt comfortable with the evidence that was presented to us to warrant filing charges,” he said. “We take the issue of sexual violence very seriously. And we want to let every victim out there know: Please don’t be silent. Please reach out to your local law enforcement.”
Root did not talk about the alleged assault with The Tribune, as prosecutors have instructed her not to while the criminal case proceeds, and she has not named Lund in the lawsuit. But Root did talk about the difficult process of seeking resources from the two universities, which her civil case focuses on.
Turned away at UVU
Before she left the hospital, Root recalls the staff there advising her to go to her school’s Title IX office to get support for coping with assault.
After a few days of not being able to get out of bed, she decided to try it. She wanted access to counseling, maybe, or someone to talk to about how to tell her parents what had happened. She wanted to know if she could get help with finishing her classes at UVU for the semester.
Title IX is a federal law that charges universities with ensuring students receive education without sex-based discrimination, and offices provide support services to students who have been sexually assaulted.
“I went into it feeling hopeful that they would give me direction or tell me what my options were,” Root said.
But after less than an hour, she said, she left UVU’s office in Orem feeling confused and hurt and not sure where to get help.
The two staff members she talked to, she said, told her there was nothing they could do after Root told them her alleged assailant was a football player at the U. They advised her that he “wasn’t their student” and so she should go talk to the University of Utah instead.
One of the employees, Root recalled, told her that it seemed like she was “doing very well after all” and that it was her responsibility to alert the other school because the player “might actually violently rape someone next time.”
Root left crying.
She couldn’t believe the employee had insinuated that what happened to her wasn’t violent, she said, after she’d been reliving every second in her head. And she knew she wasn’t doing well. She had barely gotten dressed in something other than sweatpants for that meeting — not able to put on mascara because her eyes were puffy from crying. Most days she couldn’t even move from under her pile of blankets.
“That was so invalidating to hear,” she said. “That’s where I was supposed to go to get help.”
The office at Utah Valley University never followed up with her after she left, she said.
Unsure what else to do and worried she was going to fail her classes, she decided to reach out to the U.
Root said she sent an email to set up a meeting at the Title IX office there. For days, she heard nothing back.
She sent a follow-up, Root recounted, this time mentioning that she had been assaulted by a football player. The answer was prompt. She had a meeting set for Oct. 3, 2019.
No help from the U.
The meeting at the U. was short.
Root said the first thing the Title IX staffer there told her was that the Salt Lake City school’s obligation was to the player — not her — because he was their student.
Root said she pressed the staffer about the complaint and investigation process, wanting to hold the player accountable in some way. She remembers feeling that the employee was rushing her through the steps and emphasizing the length and trauma it would take. Root got the impression the U. Title IX officer was trying to dissuade her.
The staff member then outright discouraged her, Root said, from reporting it to police, saying that aggressors are rarely charged, prosecuted and convicted in these cases.
“They didn’t care to know his name,” she added. “They didn’t ask details about what had happened.”
The staffer then spent most of the time explaining the alternate resolution process and suggested that would be the most “healing,” Root said. That involves the reporting student writing a letter to the alleged perpetrator. Then the two people agree on a resolution with a Title IX officer.
Root said she wanted the player to be disciplined in some way, such as being kicked off the team or suspended. The staffer said that was unlikely because the coaches would also have to agree to it, she said. The U. did not directly respond to a question from The Tribune on what role coaches have in the Title IX process.
Root left, telling the employee that she needed more time to think about what she wanted to do.
The staff member emailed her once shortly after to follow-up, recommending that Root go to the Rape Recovery Center for help or back to UVU, the lawsuit states.
The player continued to stay on the team, and went to a bowl game. Root said she struggled with her mental health; she couldn’t focus on her classes and her grades dropped.
She reported the sexual assault to police that December.
Then in February 2020, Root got a second email from the U.
This came after another football player, Terrell Perriman, was charged with allegedly kidnapping and raping a 17-year-old girl, and then had additional charges added by prosecutors for allegedly raping two other women.
Root said the U. employee wanted to know — yes or no, only — if her alleged assailant was Perriman. When she said it wasn’t, the employee still didn’t ask Root who she said attacked her.
The U. said it first learned the name of the player who Root had accused in February, after Root had gone to police. The school said its staff then sat down with the player and his attorney.
4 cases with the football team
The U. has now seen at least four criminal cases involving football players allegedly assaulting or threatening women in less than three years.
Lund was dismissed from the team at the same time that another player, Donte Banton, was also suspended. He is no longer on the team roster. Banton would later be charged with rape, after police allege he admitted to them that a woman he was with had told him she wasn’t interested in sex but he went ahead anyway.
Banton was Perriman’s roommate at the time. Salt Lake police have said they are investigating any connections on whether either man allegedly helped the other in carrying out an assault.
The U.’s Office of Equal Opportunity contacted police, the department has said in a warrant, to report that Banton told people he had videos of Perriman having sex with one of the women who reported him.
Perriman is facing eight felony counts, and his case is still pending in court. Banton has pleaded not guilty to a first-degree felony, and his case is moving toward trial.
A fourth case involving a U. football player occurred in February 2019. In that case, a player was accused of threatening a 17-year-old girl on a voicemail that he would “kill her” and allegedly later locking her in his dorm room. He was charged with two misdemeanors.
That case drew attention because the U. police detective assigned to investigate it — Kayla Dallof — apparently left for the day without taking any action, despite knowing about the threats. She was fired for it.
Dallof had also delayed looking into concerns reported by Lauren McCluskey before the student-athlete was killed by the man she was trying to alert police about.
The player in that 2019 case was cut after the charges were filed. Without the connection to Dallof’s firing, The Tribune generally would not report on such misdemeanor charges and has chosen to not name the student. He has no other criminal history, according to Utah court records.
He pleaded guilty to the misdemeanors in a hearing where the victim gave a tearful statement in court. He later had the charges expunged.
‘How they treated me’
In Utah, the System of Higher Education is supposed to train Title IX staff every year, across all eight public colleges in the state, on how to handle cases and support students. And it has authority, under Utah law, to collaborate and share information between schools to coordinate specifically with Title IX investigations.
Root’s lawsuit says that didn’t happen in her case.
She said she would like to see the two schools held accountable for how they treated her and be required to improve their practices. Her lawsuit alleges that both showed deliberate indifference.
“If Title IX is going to be the place where victims are sent for help, they have to do better,” she said.
She is asking for unspecified financial damages to cover the costs of therapy and tuition.
Root said directly after her experience, she would walk a different way to her classes at UVU so she wouldn’t have to pass the Title IX office where she was turned away. It was too hard for her to see and remember.
Now, she’s put all of her courses online so she doesn’t have to go to campus at all. She has two semesters left before she finishes her degree.
She said: “I just don’t feel comfortable there after how they treated me.”