Politics & Government

Florida’s universities are on a mission to educate all about sexual assaults on campus

Universities across Florida are revamping how they investigate and prosecute sexual assault complaints in the wake of scrutiny from the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and questions raised by several high profile incidents across the country.

The White House, Congress and victims rights advocates are calling for greater transparency, accountability and educating all those involved on how to properly handle a sexual assault allegation — from college presidents to coaches, faculty, fraternities, campus police, staff and students.

“This national conversation is helping us shift some priorities toward sexual assault,” said Jen Day Shaw, dean of students at the University of Florida, where four sexual attacks on UF women were reported within nine days last fall.

The statistics make it clear. Approximately one in five women have been sexually assaulted or the target of an attempted sexual assault while in college, compared with one in 16 college men, according to a 2007 campus sexual assault study conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. And a DOJ study issued last month indicated only 20 percent of women students (ages 18-24) who were the victims of a sexual assault between 1995 and 2013 reported their attack, fearing a reprisal.

Last May, to raise awareness, the Office for Civil Rights under the federal Department of Education released a list of 55 higher-education institutions under investigation for possibly violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sexual discrimination at schools receiving federal funds, including for athletic programs.

Florida State University was on the list, as were some of the nation’s top schools, including Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, Vanderbilt and the universities of Virginia, North Carolina and Michigan. The OCR has since expanded its investigation to 86 schools, including the University of South Florida in Tampa.

“Given the job I do, it was no surprise,” said Nanci Newton, director of USF’s Center for Victim Advocacy and Violence Prevention.

And while some have suggested the issue isn’t as great as the media has portrayed — especially after Rolling Stone recently recanted its account of an alleged gang rape of a UVA freshman by seven college guys at a fraternity party — the matter is still very much on the table, say college administrators.

In 2011, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) unveiled a 19-page missive detailing how schools had to respond to student allegations of campus sexual assault. The document, known as the “Dear Colleague” letter, outlined how the institutions had to adopt procedures “for the prompt and equitable resolution” of the complaints; hire a Title IX coordinator; and educate administrators, faculty, campus police and students about alcohol, bystander intervention and sexual assault complaints.

If they did not comply, the institutions could lose millions of dollars in federal funding through Title IX, part of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972. While Title IX is best known for requiring high school and collegiate athletic departments to provide equal athletic opportunities to female athletes, the law also protects students from gender-based violence, including sexual assault and rape.

“There was a sense that the victim was at a disadvantage, that the accused had more rights than the victim. The ‘Dear Colleague’ letter instructs universities to defend the rights of the accused and the accuser,” said Pat Whitely, vice president of student affairs at the University of Miami.

Whitely’s point is echoed in DOJ’s December report, Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013. It highlights how fewer than one in five female students (16 percent) who were victims of sexual assault received assistance from a victim services agency.

To educate students, UM has rolled out a 45-minute online course, Haven, to first-year and transfer students. The course, begun in August 2013, provides students with sexual assault statistics, bystander intervention skills and highlights UM policies and resources.

“We have really ramped up our education in very direct ways to students,” Whitely said. “We are using our resources with great care to put as much emphasis to this, the emphasis that it deserves.”

UM also created the President’s Campus Coalition on Sexual Assault Prevention and Education, a 25-person group comprised of faculty, administrators and students led by President Donna Shalala. The group is developing a campus survey to estimate how frequently sexual assault occurs on campus.

Ted Bunch, co-founder of the national violence prevention organization, A Call to Men, spoke to more than 1,000 UM fraternity students in September on the role that men play in curbing sexual violence. The discussion promoted a respectful version of what manhood should mean.

“All too often, the conversation about sexual and relationship violence becomes a “women’s issue,’” said Brad Bradshaw, president of UM’s Interfraternity Council. “We challenge that trend and assert that, in accordance with our fraternal values, it’s a men’s problem, too.”

Florida’s 12 state colleges and universities have implemented changes as well.

USF and Florida International University piloted Haven last August. UF, FSU and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton work with an online course called Campus Clarity. (USF switched to this course on Monday.)

Through videos and graphics, the course is meant to get students to “think deeply” about sexual violence in college — where alcohol and drugs can murky the waters of consent. “One scenario involves a drunken hookup that goes wrong, and there wasn’t consent,” said Alex Miller, content director for Campus Clarity. “There is another scenario where there is a guy taking a drunk girl into a bedroom and you have to intervene.”

UF developed several other programs after the four attacks in the fall, which happened on or near campus from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7. The four women, all UF students, were able to fight off and escape their assailant, who is still at large. (Day Shaw, UF’s dean of students, said one attack was “false.”) Police have said the attacks stemmed from one man.

After the attacks, UF’s police department and student groups launched a “Walk Safe Student Escort Program.” It initially involved approximately 800 student volunteers who worked with the University of Florida Police Department, patrolling the 2,000-acre campus and escorting students around at night. The program now has 50 student employees.

In addition, UF’s student government held its first Sexual Assault Awareness Week last fall to educate students about available campus resources, such as the peer-education advocacy group “STRIVE” (Sexual trauma/interpersonal violence education).

FSU, meanwhile, started revamping its procedures after the OCR notified the school last spring it was a target of investigation for how it handled its sexual assault complaints. Last April, the New York Times published a 6,000-word piece detailing how Florida State University and local police mishandled the sexual assault investigation involving Jameis Winston, FSU’s star quarterback, in a December 2012 incident. The article noted that Tallahassee police did not interview Winston for nearly two weeks after the victim identified him, did not pursue leads and never obtained his DNA, standard protocol in a rape investigation.

The Times also reported that FSU’s athletic department knew about the rape accusation in January 2013, but did nothing about it, allowing Winston to play the full season without answering any questions. Winston led the team to a national championship in January 2014.

Last spring, amid the OCR investigation, FSU convened a task force aimed at preventing sexual assault on campus. In September, the task force rolled out a “kNOw MORE” campaign that included a website highlighting sexual assault resources at the university and at state and national levels.

“We wanted to come up with a unifying theme that expressed the university’s point of view and commitment to preventing sexual violence,” said Mary Coburn, vice president for student affairs at FSU. “Since May we have greatly focused efforts that were already going on with perhaps not as much guidance as we’ve received now that we’ve had all these good best practices trainings.”

On Dec. 21, FSU cleared Winston of code of conduct violations. Coburn would not comment on the case.

Last Wednesday, the victim of the alleged rape filed a suit against FSU for violating her Title IX rights. The lawsuit contends FSU’s non-action was “deliberate concealment of student-on-student sexual harassment to protect the football program.”

FSU President John Thrasher responded in a statement: “Florida State University is disappointed to learn of this lawsuit. After a year of selective news leaks and distorted coverage, Florida State looks forward to addressing these meritless allegations in court. Evidence will show that through its confidential Victim Advocate Program, FSU did everything the plaintiff asked for and that the assertions FSU shirked its Title IX obligations are false. Florida State University does not tolerate sexual violence in any form, regardless of who the alleged perpetrator might be.”

Investigations can sometimes conflict with state privacy laws, which prevent law enforcement agencies — even campus police departments — from contacting school officials when a victim comes forward.

“It creates a little bit of a dilemma,” said Chris Loschiavo, a Title IX coordinator with UF. “It limits the ability for the university to conduct a Title IX investigation, because we can’t get the information, unless the student comes and reports to us, which means they have to tell their story two or three times.”

Assault allegations mixed with drugs and alcohol also make it difficult to discern whether the victim could have consented to sexual activity.

“If the person couldn’t walk or if they’re slurring their words extensively, they go in and out of consciousness, that’s someone who is probably incapable of consenting to sexual activity because they’re incapacitated,” Loschiavo said. “Now that’s different than someone who just has a couple of beers and maybe their inhibitions are lowered, that’s not typically going to be a sexual assault, that’s drunk sex.”

Richard Beary, police chief at the University of Central Florida, called alcohol “the number one factor” in almost all of the school’s cases. “They pose legal problems for the state attorney when a victim can’t remember anything.”

To educate students about blurred lines and bystander intervention, schools are hosting seminars, workshops and orchestrating public events.

FIU, UF and USF have instituted annual “Take Back the Night” marches followed by candlelight vigils. The events feature a “speak-out” where sexual assault survivors can share their experiences. USF released a PSA-style video in November, featuring students and administrators talking about ending sexual violence on campus. Last year, every USF bus became a moving billboard for the university’s victim advocacy program.

Additionally, the schools are adding staff to their Title IX offices. Florida Gulf Coast University and FAU hired new Title IX directors, both of whom started in December. In the last three years, Florida International University has added two deputies to its Title IX team, reporting to Title IX coordinator Shirlyon McWhorter.

“We have a Title IX steering committee that is made up of persons from the entire university, which is very helpful in terms of dealing with all of this,” said McWhorter.

The White House and Congress, too, are stepping in. In September, the White House launched “It’s On Us,” a national campaign to encourage college and university students, particularly men, to end sexual assault on campus. In July, U.S. senators Claire McCaskill, D-Mo, a former state prosecutor of sex crimes, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The proposed legislation boosts penalties from $35,000 to $150,000 if a school does not accurately report its sexual assault cases. The Clery Act, a federal law, requires all colleges and universities receiving federal funding to disclose statistics about campus crime.

“A victim who is assaulted on a Friday night needs to know, on that Friday night, where she can call and where she can go for confidential support and good information, which we hope gives her the encouragement to make the choice to move forward in the criminal justice system,” McCaskill said.