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Federal judge dismisses family's lawsuit over death of Peru State College student

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — A federal judge has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against Nebraska college officials over a 19-year-old student who went missing five years ago.

Judge John Gerrard said in his Tuesday ruling that officials could have done more to protect Peru State College student Tyler Thomas from a male student who later was identified as suspect in the case. But Gerrard said the decision to not expel that student for prior sexual harassment claims didn't rise to the level of deliberate indifference by college officials.

In 2010, Thomas disappeared after leaving an off-campus party, and a death certificate was issued in 2013, though her body hasn't been found. The male student wasn't charged in her case but has been imprisoned for an unrelated sexual assault conviction.

Thomas' family sued the Nebraska State Colleges Board of Trustees, which oversees Peru State, and the man. The college board requested the lawsuit's dismissal.

"What happened to Tyler is a profound tragedy," Gerrard wrote. "But the law does not permit this court to judge the board with the benefit of hindsight."

Lincoln attorney Vince Powers said the Thomas family was disappointed by the ruling but has not given up on the case. They will likely appeal to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"This is just a stumbling block that we will overcome," Powers told the Lincoln Journal Star on Tuesday night.

Powers had argued in court that college administrators knew of accusations of sexual harassment and assault involving the male student. An attorney representing the board said officials took appropriate action with information they had at the time.

"Based on the facts it knew, the board's response — while far from thorough, and perhaps even negligent — was not deliberately indifferent," Gerrard said.

He said the law requires Thomas' mother to prove that college officials acted with "deliberate indifference" to a known or obvious risk.

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