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Former Kentucky swimmers sue school, coaches over alleged sexual abuse

The lawsuit claims Kentucky athletics staff were first warned about Jorgensen’s alleged sexual misconduct by a former colleague after they hired him.
Former Kentucky swimmers sue school, coaches over alleged sexual abuse
Posted at 6:46 PM, Apr 15, 2024

Trigger Warning: This story includes details of alleged sexual abuse, rape and eating disorders.

Two former members of the University of Kentucky swim team have accused former head coach Lars Jorgensen of emotional and sexual abuse, harassment and repeated rape and claimed the school “purposefully disregarded multiple credible reports” of his alleged sexual assaults and “aggressively discouraged students and employees from filing reports with the Title IX Office,” according to a lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court. 

The plaintiffs in the case are both former collegiate swimmers and assistant coaches who worked under Jorgensen at Kentucky, including a woman identified as Jane Doe II and Briggs Alexander, previously known as Bridgette Alexander and who, according to the lawsuit, now identifies as male. 

The lawsuit states Kentucky allowed Jorgensen to “foster a toxic, sexually hostile environment within the swim program and to prey on, sexually harass and commit horrific sexual assaults and violent rapes against young female coaches and collegiate athletes who were reliant on him” for a decade as head coach before he resigned last year. 

Before taking over the program at Kentucky in 2012, Jorgensen was a competitive swimmer who represented the United States in the 1988 Summer Olympics and coached at his alma mater, the University of TennesseeLouisiana State University and the University of Toledo in Ohio. 

According to the lawsuit, Kentucky was warned about Jorgensen’s alleged sexual misconduct in an email from a former assistant swim team coach at Toledo, Mark Howard, right after it was announced that Kentucky had hired him to their coaching staff. 

Howard had reportedly discovered a video captured on a university camera that allegedly showed Jorgensen having intercourse with a swimmer, who appeared to be incapacitated, while he was a coach at Toledo. 

The same day the news broke about Kentucky hiring Jorgensen, Howard sent an email to then-head swim coach at Kentucky, Gary Conelly, about Jorgensen’s alleged inappropriate sexual behavior stating in part, “I wish you the best and hope he does not bring down your university. This is no joke at all and I cannot stomach the fact that he will be coaching women again.”

Conelly replied to Howard’s email saying they would look into the “disturbing allegation” and asked if he could provide more information. The lawsuit said despite Howard providing his phone number for Conelly to reach out, he never heard from him again. 

Howard claimed to have forwarded his email with the allegations and concerns about Jorgensen to Kentucky’s athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, and the swim team’s associate head coach at the time, Derek Perkins, the lawsuit stated. But neither Barnhart nor Perkins replied. 

The lawsuit, which additionally names Conelly and Barnhart as defendants, said Conelly obtained the contact information for the Toledo swimmer seen in the video with Jorgensen so he could confirm if their sexual relationship was consensual — even though most institutions prohibited sexual relationships between students and coaches — and “intentionally concealed the allegations.” 

The lawsuit alleged the university prioritized the potential success of its swimming program by hiring Jorgensen, given his track record at previous jobs, instead of taking action to investigate the reports of inappropriate sexual behavior or to protect its team and staff.

The next year, Jorgensen was promoted to head coach of Kentucky’s swim and diving program following Conelly’s retirement. 

According to the university’s website, Jorgensen was named Coach of the Year by the athletic department in 2017 and guided the swim team to eight Top 25 team finishes at the NCAA Championships and the women’s team to its first SEC Championship title, after which he was named 2021 SEC Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year. 

Jorgensen recruited a 22-year-old recent graduate, Jane Doe II, for the assistant coach position not long after he was promoted to head coach in 2013, according to the lawsuit. 

In December of the same year, Jorgensen hosted the coaching staff at his home for a Christmas party. The lawsuit said he isolated Jane Doe II by asking her to stay back and help clean up, then he allegedly dragged her to his bedroom and raped her. 

The lawsuit claimed an almost identical series of events resulted in Alexander allegedly being raped by Jorgensen following Christmas parties at his home in 2019 and again in 2021. 

Throughout his tenure at Kentucky, Jorgensen allegedly sexually assaulted and harassed Jane Doe II and Alexander relentlessly. The lawsuit details numerous occasions in which other staff members allegedly witnessed the assaults and either ignored them or were ignored when they voiced concerns. 

The lawsuit claimed that whenever Jorgensen heard of concerns about his behavior, he would then threaten Jane Doe II or Alexander, telling them he’d ruin their careers if they reported him and that no one would believe them. 

“Throughout his tenure at the University of Kentucky, Jorgensen exploited his position of power, fostering an unhealthy, sexualized environment for the women’s swim team, grooming female athletes with the intention of committing future sexual abuse and sexually assaulting and violently raping members of his female coaching staff that he directly supervised,” the lawsuit stated. 

In addition to the sexual abuse, Alexander and a third victim in the lawsuit, identified as Jane Doe, claimed Jorgensen kept tabs on the team’s menstrual cycles, routinely asking swimmers about their periods and controlling the swimmers' weight and diets by asking them to keep detailed food logs for him to review. The lawsuit stated this behavior resulted in many team members developing eating disorders. 

Jorgensen was placed on a leave of absence in May 2023 after a swimmer’s parent contacted the NCAA and Kentucky about his “inhumane coaching tactics,” the lawsuit stated. 

It was around this same time Alexander and Jane Doe II contacted the university’s Title IX office separately about the alleged abuse and assaults. However, according to the lawsuit, former Title IX Officer Meredith Reeves discouraged them from formally reporting their abuse and “suggested they probably didn’t want to tell their story.”

Jane Doe was also allegedly discouraged by the Title IX office from reporting her alleged abuse in October 2023. 

According to the lawsuit, the Title IX office staff told the victims their complaints could not be investigated if Jorgensen no longer worked for the university. 

Jorgensen resigned from Kentucky on June 28, 2023. 

In a statement provided to Scripps News, a spokesperson for the University of Kentucky said, “We take concerns that are raised about the conduct of an employee or potential employee very seriously. We review any such concerns before a hire is made or an employee is retained.”

The statement continued, “When issues between employees (or any members of our community) involve concerns over allegations of harassment or misconduct it is the policy and expectation of the institution that such activity be immediately reported to the appropriate officials for review, such as our Office for Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity.”

“Our Athletics Department takes those issues and those policies very seriously as the welfare and well-being of all of our employees and students is a priority,” the statement said.

“In such cases, a victim or complainant is reached out to a number of times during the course of a review. It is entirely up to the victim or complainant to decide whether they want to participate in such a review or not. Part of ensuring the well-being of our people is giving them the opportunity to decide whether they want to participate in an investigation of this kind.”

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