By LYNETTE HAALAND, Four Points News
Last month — more than two and a half years after Vandegrift alumnus Megan Rondini’s death — the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center opened to perform sexual assault forensic exams in the University of Alabama city.
“We’re pleased to see progress and believe it honors Megan’s memory as well as her wish that no one should have been treated the way she was treated,” said Mike Rondini, father of Megan.
Megan was a former University of Alabama student who grew up in Steiner Ranch and graduated VHS in 2013. In July 2015, Megan, then 20, was entering her junior year as a pre-med honors student at UA. She was majoring in biology with a 3.812 cumulative GPA. She hung herself in February 2016, less than a year after she claimed she was raped by an influential businessman in Tuscaloosa, and then denied treatment from UA counseling services, or the proper handling of her case by the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Department.
Later in 2016, a friend of Megan, Madison Bush, worked with the student government to draw up legislation to create a SAFE Center. Bush worked with a member of UA’s chapter of Not On My Campus, a student-led movement aiming to end the stigma of sexual assault and make campus safer.
On July 2, 2017 the Mike and Cindy Rondini, of Steiner Ranch, filed a lawsuit on behalf of their daughter Megan’s estate against the University of Alabama, the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s department and T.J. Bunn Jr. The Rondinis filed a civil suit claiming the Tuscaloosa Sheriff’s Department and the University of Alabama mishandled their daughter’s sexual assault case.
The lawsuit stated: “This is an action for damages that arises from the sexual assault of Megan Rondini by Terry Jackson Bunn, Jr. and from the subsequent faulty practices and mishandling of investigation and treatment by the defendants, ultimately leading to the suicidal death of Megan Elizabeth Rondini.”
Later last year, a judge dismissed the Tuscaloosa County sheriff and two investigators from a wrongful death civil suit.
In February of this year, the Rondinis and the University of Alabama settled and issued a joint statement saying that the claims asserted by the Rondinis against the university have been resolved.
“Our hope has always been to improve conditions for other sexual assault victims. We can’t comment specifically on the settlement with UA, but we believe it’s consistent with this goal,” said Mike, in a report earlier this year.
A University of Alabama statement said: UA and the Rondinis share the desire to eliminate sexual misconduct and, in the event it does occur, provide support to the victims and hold the perpetrators accountable.
UA agreed to spend $400,000 towards making UA safer for students and as part of that, the university has committed $250,000 specifically to the new Tuscaloosa SAFE Center Inc.
UA states: “The university has committed $250,000 to the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center, Inc. to provide facilities and services to aid and support victims of sexual assault. Additionally, university representatives are taking a key role in supporting the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center and building strong partnerships that will ensure its success.”
The new SAFE Center is providing forensic exams by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners during the week and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling a hotline.These SANE-certified nurses are trained to provide comprehensive care to sexual assault victims.
Jan Wynn, former president of the Alabama chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, said SANE-certified nurses can collect 80 percent more evidence than nurses not trained under SANE, , according to AL.com of the Alabama Media Group.
According to AL.com, Tuscaloosa police, Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Northport police and the University police investigated 120 sexual assaults in 2016, according to the most recent data available. Comprehensive data is not available for 2017, but that year there were 22 reported rapes at the University of Alabama according to a report from the UA Police Department.
Pam Jones, the new SAFE Center’s executive director, said SAFE is a stand alone facility where nurses provide care to people who have experienced sexual assault without retraumatizing them.
Before the center’s opening, a SANE-certified forensic exam was not available in the Tuscaloosa, the closest one was about an hour away.
In addition to the new SAFE Center, UA is committing an additional $150,000 by the end of 2019 to continue its efforts to add personnel to its team of employees dedicated to addressing issues associated with sexual misconduct. This was another piece of the agreement with the Rondinis.
Additionally in the settlement, over the next five years, the university will contribute a total of $50,000 in a scholarship named after Megan Rondini. The scholarship will give preference to students focusing their studies at UA on biological sciences, veterinary studies, and/or STEM/MBA and a desire to promote gender equity in those fields.
The university also posthumously awarded Megan Rondini a magna cum laude B.S. degree with an accompanying certificate from the University’s Honors College dated May 2018.
A federal civil suit against Terry Bunn, Jr., remains open and is scheduled to go to trial in Oct. 2019.