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Ringling College hit with lawsuit by eight former students

Ringling College of Art & Design
Ringling College of Art & Design
Published: Jun. 21, 2022 at 7:21 PM EDT
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SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - The Ringing College of Art and Design is being sued by eight former students who charge the school mishandled reports of sexual assaults, violence and stalking, court records show.

The suit, filed Tuesday in Sarasota County Court, also claims Christopher Shaffer, the former dean of students, targeted disabled and LGBTQ students for harassment.

“Ringling breached its duty to protect its student population by providing a safe campus environment,” the suit states.

“Ringling has engaged in a pattern and practice of silencing students and covering up reports of student-on-student misconduct and violations of Florida and federal anti-discrimination laws since 2008.

“Ringling engaged in the pattern and practice of dissuading victim reports involved manipulative tactics including minimalization, blaming and rejecting, to the victim, the victim’s perception of their experience.”

In a response to a request by ABC7, Chelsea Garner-Ferris, editorial director of marketing and communications for Ringling, provided a two-sentence statement: “The safety of our students and the entire Ringling College community is and always has been a top priority. As a practice, however, the College does not comment on pending legal matters.”

Tales of abuse and discrimination

The lawsuit includes affidavits from several of the plaintiffs that paint a troubling picture.

One plaintiff, whose name was redacted from the public record, said in her statement she was sexually assaulted by another student during the Fall 2016 semester. After telling friends about the attack, she says she was contacted by college staff.

She says she reported the assault to the college’s residential coordinator and a meeting with Shaffer was scheduled. At that meeting, she was surprised to find her alleged attacker was also there.

Being in close proximity to her accused assailant “caused her to freeze up rendering her unable to effectively report information about the assault.” She described Shaffer as “dismissive.”

The victim never received any information about if the accused student was punished. She later discovered he was still enrolled. She said she was “traumatized and made to feel guilty and ashamed.”

The suit also claims the college never reported the assault to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by Title IX regulations.

Suits, countersuits

Shaffer has sued one of the plaintiffs in this case, Megan Rose Ruiz, who sent an open letter in June 2020 to the campus community claiming to have compiled numerous reports from other students of complaints against Shaffer, saying he belittled students with disabilities and fired disabled resident assistants instead of accommodating their disabilities.

In the suit filed Tuesday, it says emails show Shaffer informed the college he was planning to sue Ruiz for libel, slander and defamation. The college asked him not to do so while he was employed with the college, saying it could “constitute unlawful retaliation.”

Shaffer did not agree to the terms and was terminated by the college Sept. 10, 2020.

Court records show Shaffer has since filed another civil suit against the college, claiming the college did nothing to stem the tide of negative publicity and is guilty of breach of implied contract, negligent infliction of emotional distress, unjust enrichment, misrepresentation and invasion of privacy.

Shaffer suit alleges that on June 24, 2020, the president of the college, Dr. Larry Thompson, told Shaffer in a phone conversation that “he knew the allegations (against Shaffer) were untrue, that ‘they could have happened to any of us,’ and that, in time and with the plaintiff’s silence, the whole situation would just ‘blow over.’”

“Ringling and Dr. Thompson were not preparing a response, the situation was not blowing over, and, in fact, their protracted silence only enticed Ms. Ruiz and the twitter mob to increase their online disparagement of plaintiff and Ringling,” the suit says.

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