On Sunday, December 21, 2014, Florida State University (FSU) cleared Jameis Winston – 2013 Heisman trophy winner and quarterback for FSU – of several violations of the FSU Student Conduct Code arising out of sexual assault allegations.
The allegations stem from a December 2012 report to Tallahassee Police and FSU officials in which a female FSU student stated that she had been raped by a fellow student. She made the report on the night of the incident, but did not know the name of the assailant at the time. A few weeks later, she spotted her assailant on campus, and after learning his identity – Jameis Winston – she followed up with the police and FSU to update her report.
After the woman identified Winston, a sadly familiar pattern emerged. Like many other similar incidents recently brought to light, police and prosecutors refused to charge Winston, and the school “took steps to both hide, then hinder” the investigation into the very serious allegations against the athlete.
The New York Times conducted a thorough investigation of FSU’s disciplinary procedures relating to student athletes accused of misconduct. The Times reported that, days after the victim identified Winston as her attacker, senior FSU athletic department officials privately met with Winston’s attorney and “decided, on behalf of the university, not to begin an internal disciplinary inquiry, as required by federal law.” The Times also noted that this was hardly the first or only time “the towering presence of Florida State football had cast a shadow over justice in Tallahassee.”
Indeed, this was hardly the first or only time the veneration of student athletics cast a shadow over justice in schools across the nation.
Readers of our blog will no doubt recognize the similarities between this story and that of Brenda Tracy, who recently gave her account of how Oregon State University (OSU) mishandled the inquiry into her gang-rape by OSU football players. In a recent follow-up article, further investigation by the Oregonian revealed the extent and scope of OSU’s failed response.
Just as in Ms. Tracy’s case, Florida State University’s “investigation” into the sexual assault allegedly committed by Winston raised many red flags for those concerned about the safety of students and the epidemic of college sexual violence. In both cases, the men alleged to have committed the sexual assaults (in Ms. Tracy’s case, OSU football players; in the FSU case, Winston) admitted as much. In both cases, the police failed to act and preserve evidence. In both cases, the District Attorney’s office did not indict those involved (despite protests by some attorneys within the D.A.’s office) due to matters unrelated to the victims’ credibility. And, in both cases, the school’s response was inadequate.
FSU only began a disciplinary inquiry (and first attempted to interview Winston) after the close of Florida State’s national championship season. Seven months would pass before the school bothered to interview the alleged victim, who had by that point already dropped out of FSU after receiving countless death threats.
Similarly, officials at OSU failed to do anything in response to Ms. Tracy’s report. Ms. Tracy declined to cooperate with the D.A.’s office after receiving death threats.
FSU did not announce its plans to conduct a code of conduct hearing until the fall of 2014, and did not hold the hearing until December of 2014.
In Ms. Tracy’s case, OSU did not hold any sort of hearing, and only conducted an “internal investigation” in December of 2014 – sixteen years after Ms. Tracy’s sexual assault.
And just as FSU prepared to attend the Rose Bowl yesterday on January 1, Winston was summarily cleared of all disciplinary charges against him, and thus allowing him to participate in the game.
Both FSU and OSU’s responses appear to form the basis for the rule, and not the exception, of institutional responses to college sexual assault. Federal law requires universities that know or reasonably should be expected to know of sexual violence to conduct an investigation. Nonetheless, many universities are still failing to adequately address allegations of sexual assault.
The Winston case and Ms. Tracy’s case present examples of the many similar tales of inadequate and outright harmful university and school responses to sexual violence (in just the past few years alone). This seems to become especially apparent when that sexual violence is perpetrated by student athletes.
The institutional failure to address sexual assault (committed against students as well as non-students) is a pervasive issue: according to a recent congressional report, “many institutions are failing to comply with the law and best practices in how they handle sexual violence among students[,]” and more than 40% of the 440 four-year schools surveyed had not conducted a single investigation in the past five years.
Too often, the lives of those persons accused of sexual assault and rape – whether they are students, athletes, or some combination thereof – are valued above those of the alleged victims, and survivors are held to a disproportionate level of scrutiny and scorn. Furthermore, school proceedings designed to address such matters routinely display a primary concern for the school’s reputation and donors, rather than the needs of sexual assault survivors. Inappropriate and inadequate campus responses are commonplace, and often involve victim-blaming, retaliation against students who report the abuse, and the failure to sanction those found responsible for sexual assault.
These types of responses are, in fact, more than inadequate: they are harmful. Survivors deserve support and respect, and schools and students who commit or contribute to a culture of sexual violence should be held responsible for their actions. This is one of the many reasons why those of us here at O’Donnell Clark & Crew advocate for victims of sexual violence.
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