A residential research study promising seven weeks of “FUN!” at Purdue University in 2017 is at the center of a lawsuit alleging multiple incidents of assault, sexual harassment and violence among the 11 to 15-year-old participants.
The study, which was marketed to parents as a seven-week summer camp, was shut down the day after a female participant posted a video on social media of another girl nude in the shower area.
The lawsuit was filed Oct. 5 by L. Lauderdale on behalf of the minor in the video, who is listed as Jane Doe. The Marion County family named Purdue University, IU, Indiana University School of Medicine and Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute for contributing to the girl’s “substantial emotional trauma.”
In 2016, the National Institutes of Health awarded an $8.8 million grant for a five-year period to measure how diet and sodium intake affects blood pressure in adolescents. Titled Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, Camp DASH did not make it through its first summer.
The onslaught of problems that led to the camp’s premature closure are laid out in a 51-page internal review released in November 2017 by Alysa Rollock, Purdue vice president for ethics and compliance, at the request of Purdue President Mitch Daniels.
Rollock concluded the counselors and program organizers were not appropriately trained, did not adequately supervise participants and failed to report incidents in a timely manner. The lead researcher in the study, Connie Weaver, made several false promises to parents and university officials on how the adolescents were overseen, according to the document.
A Camp Dash Facebook page advertised sports, science and nutrition classes, arts and crafts and field trips. Parents were told their children would be supervised at all times.
Participants would receive free housing at Purdue’s Tarkington Hall and a $750 stipend over two sessions, according to the internal review.
The experience campers had that summer did not carry out the advertisement’s cheery promises.
Two boys were arrested and dismissed during the first week of the study, which began June 10. One boy attempted to choke another participant, and the other was in a fight that sent another child to the hospital.
Weaver was informed June 20 of multiple reports that a boy participating in the study had sexually harassed and assaulted female campers. The boy was dismissed the following day, but Weaver did not report the incidents to anyone outside the study until after July 5, according to the internal review.
That was the deadline the Biomedical Institutional Review Board, which oversees research at Purdue, set for closing the study if another event occurred.
“I implore the committee to allow us to take emergency steps to remove a disruptive camper without fear of shutting down the study,” Weaver wrote in a June 20 memo to Biomedical IRB. “I have conducted 11 previous summer research camps; this is the first time, ever, that incidents leading to arrests have occurred.”
In the early hours of July 5, a girl reported to a counselor that one of her male peers had inappropriately touched her in the van ride back from a field trip to see Fourth of July fireworks. Weaver, who was in the vehicle, did not report the event to police, but the counselor independently filed reports.
By the end of the first three-week session, seven participants were sent home and one chose to leave.
The Purdue University Police Department told Purdue officials June 30 that the study posed an “imminent threat to the health and safety of the children” and recommended the study be canceled.
The study was allowed to continue if Weaver followed through with several changes she described in an email to university officials. The reports of sexual assault were still unknown to people outside the study.
According to Rollock’s report, many of the changes Weaver promised did not materialize. At least nine incidents allegedly took place in the 10 days before the second session was suspended.
A head counselor was informed between 10 and 11 p.m. July 18 that a female camper — who had already been sent home for sexual violence and an attempted choking — posted a video on social media of a girl naked in the shower area. Two boys in the study had seen the video.
The counselor did not report the incident to police until the following morning. Within two days of police learning of the video, the remaining 46 campers were sent home.
Several administrative problems persisted throughout the study.
The researchers intended to have 150 participants, but just 78 enrolled when the study began. Witnesses reported that Weaver’s decisions on whether to dismiss participants were influenced by her desire to maintain sufficient enrollment numbers, according to the internal review.
In her July 3 email detailing consequences if the University followed through with its initial determination to shut down the study after the first session, Weaver referenced the ramifications for other research projects and future grants should the study close early.
“The embarrassment and potential anger by research partners is considerable and has implications for future collaborations,” the email said.
Parents were told their children would be supervised at all times and there would be a licensed paramedic or registered nurse on staff. According to the internal review, these claims were not true.
During the nighttime, camper to staff ratios were as low as 1-to-20, violating standards from the American Camp Association.
Not one person on staff had the necessary background to manage a residential summer camp, according to the internal review. Weaver hired a camp manager who had experience working with children from low socioeconomic backgrounds for the second session.
While the IRB mandated online training if the study were to resume for the second session, nearly 13 percent of counselors did not complete it, according to the internal review. The camp manager did not go through the required training until the day the study closed.
Four campers returned within the next week so researchers could collect additional data. The rest of the study was canceled.
“The questions that were to be answered by the DASH study are tremendously important to the health of our nation’s youth, and our loss of the opportunity to steward this transformative research disappoints us all,” Daniels wrote in an open letter Nov. 28, 2017.
Purdue spokesman Tim Doty said the university does not comment on pending litigation, but referred the Indiana Daily Student to the following statement from Purdue:
“The university has acknowledged that mistakes were made regarding the operation of the residential camp associated with the study,” according to Purdue’s statement. “It will continue to work in good faith to remedy any adverse impacts sustained as a result of those events.”
IU spokesman Chuck Carney said the University’s involvement in Camp Dash was minimal. IU received $47,000 of the $8.8 million NIH grant to fund one person, Tamara Hannon, to help with the initial set-up of the project.
Hannon, a pediatrics professor at IU School of Medicine, was responsible for recruiting and screening participants, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit claims Hannon did not properly account for the adolescents’ backgrounds to determine whether they could be a risk to other participants in the study.
IU was absent from Purdue’s investigation, but allegedly collaborated with the other defendants in failing to oversee the participants’ safety, according to the complaint.
Attorneys representing L. Lauderdale and the defendants declined to comment for this story. The defendants will submit responses to the lawsuit by Dec. 7.