Content warning: this story contains mentions of physical harassment and sexual assault.
Northwestern and four former employees denied allegations of forced labor and sex trafficking by former cheerleader Hayden Richardson in separate court filings Tuesday. NU argued that the University “promptly and effectively addressed the concerns Richardson raised in 2019 and in 2020” and claimed that the concerns raised by Richardson in 2019 and 2020 did not specify sexual misconduct to the extent her lawsuit details. Former Spirit Squad Coordinator Pamela Bonnevier, former Deputy Director of Athletics Mike Polisky, former Deputy Title IX Coordinator Amanda DaSilva and former Associate Athletic Director for Marketing Heather Van Hoegarden Obering filed separate responses to the lawsuit. Bonnevier was fired in 2020 following an Office of Equity investigation into her conduct, and Polisky stepped down from the role of athletics director in May 2021 following a number of protests. Hayden Richardson, a member of the cheer team from 2018-2020, sued the University in 2021 for allegedly ignoring complaints by Richardson and her peers that members of the cheer team were repeatedly harassed and groped by fans and alumni for the purpose of soliciting donations. NU filed a motion to dismiss forced labor, sex trafficking, forced-labor trafficking, breach of contract and emotional distress claims in June 2021, but a federal judge ruled last month that most of the claims could move forward. U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang wrote that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act could apply because Richardson alleges that the defendants knowingly benefited from the incidents. Chang also agreed with Richardson that her “Spirit Squad Contract” — which allegedly stipulated that she would have to repay the University for scholarships and expenses had she left the team — could amount to coercion. NU and Bonnevier both disputed Richardson’s characterization of the Spirit Squad Contract in their filings. “Richardson was free to separate from the cheerleading team at any time if she so desired, and the Northwestern Spirit Squad Guidelines Richardson signed for the 2019-2020 academic year did not include any provision regarding repayment upon termination,” the University wrote. Northwestern acknowledged that it was made aware of allegations regarding safety on the cheer team and inappropriate interactions with fans in its filing but maintained that both the Office of Equity and the Department of Athletics adequately responded to the complaints. According to NU’s filing, most of the anonymous letters from cheerleaders delivered to Obering by Richardson in January 2019 “did not reference any sexual conduct whatsoever.” The filing repeatedly says Richardson told Polisky and Obering she “loves” the Wilson Club — the exclusive donor suite where groping and harassment is alleged to have taken place — and did not raise concerns about the club in a subsequent email to DaSilva. Andrew Miltenberg, Richardson’s attorney, told The Daily he sees the University’s filing as an attempt to obfuscate and delay the case. “We are thrilled that we will finally be able to confront the University and the sanctioned behavior of so many of its wrongdoers,” he said. “By its own doing, Northwestern is quickly coming to epitomize so much of that which is currently infecting higher education. It is disappointing that such a storied institution cannot get out of its own way.” Representatives for the University did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the filing.