In an eerily synchronous development following last week’s Rose Bowl playoff between University of Oregon (U of O) and Florida State University (FSU), two women – one a current student at U of O, the other a former student at FSU – who were sexually abused by student athletes have now filed suit against their respective schools for alleged violations of Title IX.
“Jane Doe,” the victim from U of O, was allegedly raped by three University of Oregon basketball players in March of 2014. The victim from FSU says she was sexually assaulted in December 2012 by FSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
At first glance, the outcomes of these two cases appear to be very different: the University of Oregon did the “right thing” and suspended the players involved, whereas Florida State did not. Why, then, are both schools facing Title IX suits? Or, more specifically: why is U of O being sued when it ultimately did what FSU should have done and punished the perpetrators involved?
Before we suggest an answer to that question, let us first take a quick look at what happened in these cases.
In the FSU case, Jameis Winston sexually assaulted the alleged victim on December 7, 2012. Members of FSU’s athletics department – including the head football coach and FSU’s senior athletics director – became aware of this allegation no later than January of 2013. Among the many other missteps FSU committed, FSU did not notify the school’s Title IX coordinator until the following November, after the press publicly broke the story.
By the time FSU finally conducted an investigation and held a hearing on Winston’s conduct, two years had passed since the sexual assault. The school ultimately cleared Winston of all charges in order that “stunned and dismayed” the victim’s Title IX attorneys, John Clune and Baine Kerr. The attorneys remarked that the ruling was “not a decision at all but a statement that the judge couldn’t decide[,]” and that “[t]he Order [did not] even follow the Student Conduct Code, and it ignore[d] the bulk of the evidence.”
In the U of O case, Jane Doe was gang raped by three University of Oregon basketball players around March 8, 2014. Just a few months before the gang-rape, U of O recruited one of those three players – Brandon Austin – from Providence University, where Austin had been suspended for sexually assaulting another student.
U of O states that the reason they did not investigate and delayed the players’ suspension (from basketball and/or from the school) was because the Eugene police “requested [they] not do anything that might hinder [the] criminal investigation, including suspending players or not playing them in a game.” The Eugene police department initially confirmed that they asked the university not to hinder the investigation. However, the police later clarified their statement, and said that they only asked the university to hold off on its internal investigation: they did not care whether U of O suspended the players from participation in sporting events.
Under Title IX, universities receiving federal funding are legally obligated to conduct a “prompt, thorough and impartial” disciplinary inquiry or investigation into allegations of sexual assault against students. Furthermore, universities are required to conduct their own investigations into allegations of sexual assault regardless of whether the case is being investigated by police.
We have previously blogged about the presumption of innocence and the extension of that bedrock principle of civility to victims of sexual violence. Indeed, this presumption is a foundational precept to our society’s collective understanding of justice. However, justice also requires an honest, impartial investigation.
In light of this, we can offer at least one explanation as to why both schools are being subject to Title IX suits, despite the fact that U of O did eventually suspend the players whereas FSU did not. That is, both universities are being sued because both universities failed to conduct “prompt, thorough and impartial” inquiries and investigations, as required by Title IX. As a result, the schools created a hostile environment for the survivors.
Here at O’Donnell Clark & Crew, we believe that an effective university response to sexual assault requires more than mere suspension of a player. We believe it requires a survivor-centric approach that includes victim assistance, comprehensive sexual harassment policies, and effective procedures to safeguard all students and ensure sexual assault victims’ fair access to educational opportunities.
We stand with survivors, and support these efforts to hold institutions accountable for their responses to sexual violence.
If you would like to speak with us confidentially, you may call us toll-free at 1-888-407-0224 or email us at [email protected].