Menu Courey family calls for ‘changing the system’
MU and Columbia Police announced they will investigate the 2011 death of swimmer Sasha Menu Courey.
Jan. 29, 2014
When Missouri swimmer Sasha Menu Courey checked herself into University Hospital in March 2011 for suicidal thoughts, her parents, Lynn Courey and Mike Menu, rushed from their native Toronto.
By the time they arrived in Columbia, Courey said, their daughter needed more care than they knew how to provide.
“She was already six feet under when we found out she needed help,” Menu told The Maneater on Friday, referring to the fragile state in which Courey and Menu found their daughter in March.
Three months later in June, Menu Courey swallowed 100 Tylenol in a Massachusetts hospital and took her own life. She battled borderline personality disorder, a disease marked by extreme highs and lows and rocky relationships, and one that was only exacerbated by a sexual assault committed by a member of the Missouri football team in February 2010, her parents said.
A report released by ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Friday claims the university knew of Menu Courey’s alleged sexual assault and chose not to investigate it.
In documents obtained by ESPN through MU, Menu Courey told a rape crisis counselor, a campus therapist, a campus nurse, two doctors and, according to her journal, an athletic department administrator of the assault.
“We strongly believe that it was the university’s role to start an investigation,” Courey said. “They had the same information we had.”
In a letter to ESPN dated Dec. 4, 2013, athletic department spokesman Chad Moller disputed that claim.
“No one on the coaching staff ... and no one in our administration nor any staff members, were, to the best of our knowledge, ever told about this event while Sasha was alive,” Moller wrote. “Had Sasha told any of our staff that she felt she had been assaulted, we expect that our staff would have reported it immediately to the proper authorities.”
Still, Courey and Menu said they felt their daughter’s condition slipped through the cracks.
“I don’t want to say the intentions were bad, but something wasn’t right,” Menu said.
“Our trust was 100 percent into the school, and we feel like we’d been cheated,” Courey said.
In January 2011, swimming coach Greg Rhodenbaugh sidelined Menu Courey, who had been dealing with a nagging back injury. Rhodenbaugh said he believed Menu Courey stopped attending counseling regularly, though records obtained by ESPN show that not to be the case.
Just days earlier in December 2010, Menu Courey had told her university therapist for the first time about the alleged assault.
In August of that same year, she noted her April 2010 hospitalization for a “major depressive disorder” in her yearly medical appraisal.
Menu Courey’s condition continued to deteriorate while she was away from the team. In April 2011, she attempted suicide in a Columbia motel by cutting her wrist. Columbia police used tasers and pepper spray to pry the razorblade from her hands. Police said she screamed, “The system failed me,” while officers worked to subdue her.
Pulling Menu Courey away from the team and the sport she played since she was 3 years old only worsened her condition, her parents said.
“Now suddenly her support — her team — wasn’t there anymore,” Courey said.
Menu said he thinks MU health officials could have communicated with coaches to see that his daughter continue to participate in team activities.
“There’s no privacy concern to say, ‘There’s a big problem with Sasha being away from the team,’ ” he said.
At issue is a key provision of 1972 statute Title IX and various privacy laws including the Health Information Privacy Act. HIPA protects patient-practitioner confidentiality. Title IX mandates that once university officials have reasonable knowledge of possible sexual violence — even after a victim is dead — they must take immediate action to investigate or turn information over to law enforcement officials.
HIPA would dictate a health care professional’s responsibility to withhold medical information from athletics officials that could possibly have helped Menu Courey. Should athletics personnel have learned about any sexual violence, they would have been required to alert law enforcement officials.
Three days later, on April 6, 2011, while on suicide watch and 96-hour involuntary commitment, athletics staffer Meghan Anderson presented Menu Courey with a university withdrawal form, which Anderson said would help Menu Courey maintain her grades should she return to school in the fall.
Menu Courey’s parents said they were never told that signing the form meant relinquishing their daughter's scholarship.
“We were all told that this was best for her and returning in the fall was a sure thing,” Menu said. “We felt like the information that was really critical was not communicated.”
Instead, MU Financial Aid Director James Brooks sent Menu Courey a letter in May of 2011 saying she was no longer eligible for financial aid. Days before the letter was received, Menu Courey wrote in her journal that she telephoned Anderson from the hospital and told her details of the sexual assault.
Anderson, who is now employed at the University of Tennessee, publicly denied ever hearing about the rape.
Twenty-four days later on June 17, 2011, Menu Courey died in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. She was 20 years old.
In February 2013, MU sent a letter to Courey and Menu containing a chat transcript between their daughter and an online crisis prevention center. The document had been saved in Menu Courey’s student email account. The letter also asked Courey and Menu if they could provide any more information on the sexual assault described in the transcript and inquired about their desire to forward an investigation.
Courey and Menu did not respond, they said, because the university had more access to the information than they did. They said it was MU’s responsibility to start an investigation.
MU said it did not launch an investigation at the time because it lacked the parent’s consent or further information implicating students.
“We are still grieving,” Courey said. “We find out new things about Sasha and the rape all the time. I just want this to stop.”
From their daughter’s death, Courey and Menu said they want to see universities change the way in which they handle sexual assaults and how they approach an athlete’s mental health.
“We cannot condone a culture that ignores these types of sexual advances,” Menu said. “Culturally, it’s not seen as badly as it should be.”
In terms of mental health, Courey said there was never a direct link between the swim team and mental health resources available on campus.
Those problems persist, she said, not just at MU but around the country.
Her daughter would be working to fix the problems if she were alive, Courey said.
“If Sasha would be here today, she wouldn’t find a person to blame,” she said. “She’d be looking to change the system.”
Menu and Courey said simple improvements that could be made include increasing the availability of NCAA hardship waivers and non-competitive aid or providing both a sports psychologist and a practicing psychologist to each team.
Just as meeting with a sports psychologist is often mandatory, so should be regular mental health check ups, they added.
“We would love nothing more to hear one year down the road that Missouri is implementing these steps because it takes care of its athletes,” Menu said.
At Missouri and across the country, Menu and Courey said, a streamlined process to ensure all students have access to mental health resources is lacking. For their daughter, it could have saved her life.
“There was no standard path like that, that we know of, that connected the athletic department to a student to a psychologist,” Menu said.
It’s those types of services that should be available to athletes, Menu and Courey said. Teaching coaches and trainers about mental health isn’t enough.
“It’s unreasonable to expect a coach to be the one to know what to do,” Menu said. “There needs to be a process. It’s not an individual’s responsibility to take care of such things.”
Courey said a culture change similar to that of AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s is needed to erase stigma surrounding mental illness. She said that’s what her daughter would want.
“I try to put myself in Sasha’s shoes and change the system,” she said.