Feds Investigate FSU For Title IX Violations But Law Is More Than Sports

Apr 7, 2014

FSU Quarterback Jameis Winston
Credit marsmettn / flickr.com

One of Florida State University’s biggest athletic stars may also be one of the school’s biggest liabilities. The federal government is now probing the school’s handling of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Jameis Winston—using a portion of federal law traditionally governing equal access in sports.

Winston led the Seminoles to win after win, even as the state began investigating him for an alleged sexual assault that occurred nearly a year before. Eventually, the state attorney’s office said it didn’t have enough evidence to charge the football and baseball star. But that hasn’t absolved FSU of responsibility.

“The guidance from 2011 reiterates that ideally, investigations would happen within and be concluded within 60 days," says Neena Chaudhry, a Senior Counsel and Director of Equal Opportunities in Athletics at the National Women’s Law Center. 

The 60 days she’s referring to are a 60-day window after a university is made aware of a sexual assault complaint.  The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating FSU’s handling of the sexual assault allegations against Winston. The probe was initially reported by USA Today. USDOE's authority comes under Title IX—the section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act governing equal access to sports. The law also spells out how any school receiving any federal money should deal with allegations made by students, faculty and staff. It says even if there’s a simultaneous criminal investigation, schools should still do their own.

Title IX got a boost in 2011 with the U.S. Department of Education issued a memorandum charging schools to crack down on sexual violence on campus. As this YouTube video from the college sex victim advocacy group Know Your Nine and comedienne Amy Pohler’s Smart Girls project highlights, some groups are pushing to highlight the extent of Title IX Protections.

“In a court system, a defendant is entitled to a presumption of innocence and faces their accuser under a standard that’s beyond a reasonable doubt," says Peter Lake, Director of Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy. He says the 2011 memorandum lowered the amount of evidence it takes for schools to launch investigations.

"But in college court, the accused is not necessarily entitled to the same legal presumption," he says.

Because schools have separate policies and procedures outlining punishments for students—those who have been accused may not have much recourse to push back, if they feel their rights are being violated.

“It could be a Title IX violation to wrongly accuse someone of a Title IX investigation," Lake says.

There are a handful of that type of Title IX investigation currently underway, as schools try to crack down on sexual harassment, discrimination and assault. Lake says while the intent of the 2011 Title IX memorandum was noble, it may eventually need judicial review.

“I think, sooner or later, one of these students is going to take his or her case to the U.S. Supreme Court and say, ‘They’re running a college court system, but they’re not doing it under the proper guidelines of the due process clause,'” Lake says.  

Florida State University’s Winston was accused of raping a fellow student in December 2012—yet the case sat idle for nearly a year. FSU officials didn’t speak with Winston until January of this year and then spoke only with him. That could violate Title IX’s strict timelines for bringing an investigation. Though two other football players were brought up on student code-of-conduct violations, Winston was not—another issue the federal government plans to look into.

For more news updates from Lynn Hatter, follow her on Twitter: @HatterLynn.