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USF under federal investigation for handling of rape case

By
Times
The University of South Florida is under federal investigation for possibly mishandling a sexual assault case.

TAMPA — The University of South Florida is under federal investigation for possibly mishandling a sexual assault case, making it the second Florida school to face scrutiny since the White House created a task force on campus rape last January.

The accuser, a 22-year-old woman who spoke with the Tampa Bay Times this month, said the university failed to properly investigate her case, which she said happened last February when she was still a student.

The woman did not report the incident to the police. She said she feared they wouldn't believe her because she was dating the man and also worked with him on campus. However, she reported it to university officials, who conducted an investigation and an appeal, both times finding insufficient evidence.

She sent a complaint against USF to the U.S. Department of Education on July 7 after the initial investigation, alleging discrimination and retaliation for reporting the rape. The complaint outlined the events and investigation and included more than 750 pages of documents.

The department opened an investigation Sept. 3. In a letter, it said the Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether USF "failed to provide prompt and equitable responses," whether such failure subjected the woman or other students "to a sexually hostile environment," and whether USF "retaliated against the Complainant by taking her off the work schedule after she reported the sexual violence."

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The Times is not naming the accuser because she says she is a victim of sexual assault. She said she has faced a series of roadblocks as she seeks resolution for the attack and its effects on her employment.

The man she is accusing declined to comment.

The rape occurred last February, the woman said. The man, who she said was her supervisor at her on-campus job, came by her apartment to discuss their relationship. At one point, the woman said, he demanded oral sex, pushing himself in front of her and later pulling her hair, cursing at her, and forcing her to have sex with him.

"I panicked," the woman said. "I didn't know what to do. My mind went blank."

Though she never said "no," she said she physically resisted and never verbally consented. She said the man continued to force himself on her and was agitated when she didn't respond willingly.

"He gave me this look like, 'Why aren't you doing what I'm telling you to do?' " she said.

"Can't you see I'm trying to have sex with you?" she said he asked her. "Then what are you waiting for?"

The woman reported the assault to her manager at her on-campus job a few weeks later, saying she didn't believe the police would help her, but she was hoping something could be done at work.

"I felt uncomfortable being with him at work," the woman said.

She said her boss offered to move her to another location, but did not offer to move the man. She said her boss told her that was all that could be done.

The next day, the woman went to the victim's advocacy office on campus, where she was told it was against university policy for her supervisor to hear such allegations and not forward them to the university.

During a work shift the following week, she noticed her name was no longer on the schedule and she wasn't in the system. When she asked her manager about it, she was told it could be a mistake, but not to report to work the next day, since she wouldn't be able to clock in.

USF investigated the case and determined there was "no cause" for the allegations of sexual harassment, sexual battery and retaliation due to insufficient evidence, according to a letter issued by USF on June 9.

The woman said officials altered her statements and ignored inaccuracies in the statements of others.

On July 7, the woman filed both a Title IX complaint with the U.S. Department of Education and an appeal with USF. Title IX is the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education programs and activities.

USF spokesman Adam Freeman said he was not able to speak about the case, but provided a statement regarding the Title IX complaint.

"The University promptly began an investigation upon receiving notice of the incident," the statement said. "The two individuals involved were acquainted with each other and the University determined the safety of students and the USF community has not been compromised at any time."

The statement said USF prides itself in promoting a culture where "sexual violence is a rare occurrence and simply not tolerated."

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USF is one of 95 higher education institutions now under federal investigation over their handling of sexual assault cases.

A similar case was opened at Florida State University in April to determine whether its handling of the Jameis Winston rape allegations violated Title IX laws.

The Department of Education receives about 10,000 civil rights complaints a year, but not all of them lead to investigations. Before it opens a case, the Office for Civil Rights first determines whether it has jurisdiction, whether the complaint was filed in a timely manner, and whether the allegations raised are clear and complete, said Denise Horn, assistant press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

"Opening a complaint for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the case," Horn said. "Rather, the office is merely a neutral fact-finder."

Horn was unable to speak to specifics of the case, but said the office tries to wrap up its investigations within six months, though some might take longer.

Virtually all cases in which a university is found noncompliant end in a settlement, Horn said. But the office could refer the case to the U.S. Justice Department for litigation or seek to terminate federal funding — an extreme measure that hasn't happened in a civil rights case in 10 years.

Statistics circulated by the White House estimate that one in five college women will be sexually assaulted and that rape is an issue on all college campuses.

USF Title IX coordinator Jose Hernandez said he believes this is the first time the school has been investigated for a "sexual violence" case.

Hernandez said the investigation has caused people to question the work the school is doing and its policies.

"No one wants to be on a list that has some negative implications," Hernandez said.

While Hernandez was prohibited from speaking about case specifics, he said their investigation process relies on the evidence available to them.

"An individual might say, 'That's not what it was,' " Hernandez said. "We follow the evidence we've collected. I can assure you we don't fabricate evidence. That's not our job to fabricate or change or tamper with our evidence."

If someone felt that investigators did manipulate the evidence, they could cite that as a basis for their appeal, Hernandez said.

"People can make the decision to move forward (with an OCR complaint), and we preserve their right to do so," Hernandez said. "And if someone else decides to file a complaint, that's their right as well."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.