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3 women’s soccer players sue Butler, accuse athletic trainer of sexual assault

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Three women associated with Butler University’s women’s soccer team sued the team’s former assistant athletic trainer and his supervisor over claims of sexual assault.

The motion filed in federal court Wednesday was made on behalf of three women, identified as Jane Doe 1, 2, and 3.

The women are three of six who formally reported sexual abuse within the team. The women reported the abuse to Coach Tari St. John, Butler’s Title IX Coordinator Maria Kanger, or both.

The trainer, Michael Howell, was put on administrative leave following a five-month Title IX investigation into the situation. His supervisor, Ralph Reiff, remains as Butler’s senior associate athletic director.

Court documents obtained Wednesday say that Howell “groomed, illicitly photographed, and sexually assaulted” Jane Doe 1 from early 2021 until October 2021, as well as other women’s soccer players.

Howell was the athletic trainer for the women’s soccer and men’s tennis team. Trainers are responsible for physically treating players to prevent and heal injuries.

Documents say, “Howell (used) his authority and power as an athletic trainer to isolate, groom, manipulate, control, sexually assault, and otherwise abuse Ms. Doe.” Much of the abuse occurred during injury treatment sessions, the suit says.

Following the investigation, the Title IX Panel determined that “Howell had sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and stalked Ms. Doe.”

They determined that Howell “(developed) an inappropriately close relationship with Ms. Doe, causing her to feel reliant upon him for her physical, mental, and emotional well-being.” Through this, “Howell created an unconscionably abusive environment.”

The Panel also found that Howell violated Butler’s sexual misconduct, sexual assault, and stalking policies.

Butler University and Reiff are being held “vicariously liable” for charges of negligence, gross negligence, battery, assault, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, the documents say.

The suit alleges that neither Reiff nor Butler University “provided Ms. Doe and other female athletes training or education concerning the proper protocols and athletic treatment by trainers and personnel that would have direct physical contact with athletes, despite the well-known vulnerability to sexual exploitation.”

The suit also says that Reiff “did not do anything reasonably required to investigate the circumstances, train the coaches, keep Howell or the athletes under watch, or otherwise protect multiple women as they were repeatedly abused by Howell.”

Howell worked with Butler University from 2012 until October 2021. During that time, he worked with women’s soccer, men’s baseball, women’s and men’s golf, men’s tennis, and cheerleading teams.

Howell was fired from the university in the summer of 2022, Butler officials say.

Mark Apple, Butler’s director of strategic communication, shared this statement with News 8 Wednesday evening.

The health, safety, and well-being of our campus community is always our top priority. In late September 2021, student-athletes on the women’s soccer team reported misconduct by Michael Howell, an assistant athletic trainer. Upon being informed of the allegations, the University promptly notified law enforcement, removed Howell from campus and suspended him from his job duties, pending further investigation.  After a thorough investigation and hearing, the trainer was found responsible for violating University policies, and he was then terminated in summer 2022. Butler looks forward to the opportunity to show the high integrity and responsiveness of the coaches and senior personnel. Because the complaints do not name the plaintiffs and they have not waived federal student privacy protections, Butler is limited from further comment outside of the legal process.

Mark Apple, Butler University

Attorneys representing Jane Doe 1, 2, and 3, shared a statement regarding the lawsuit.

Our clients and other student-athletes on the Butler women’s soccer team reported the abuse perpetrated against them by a predator employed by their University, and they subsequently proved their allegations in an extensive investigation and Title IX hearings. Afterward, they tried for months to obtain justice from Butler without being forced to file suit, but Butler’s responses, such as they were, were inadequate and compelled them to file lawsuits.

By these lawsuits, these brave athletes seek to obtain full justice for the harms they suffered, notify other athletes who may have been sexually assaulted while playing sports for the University that they are not alone, and ensure that the predator once employed by Butler – who assaulted vulnerable female student-athletes multiple times, in multiple locations on and off campus – cannot hurt another athlete.

What Butler did to these athletes is shameful, and it went on entirely too long. We look forward to representing them as they seek justice for the sexual assaults they endured during their dedicated service to Butler University and its athletic program.

Cohen & Malad, LLP

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