Faced with a student’s lawsuit over sexual assault, the University of South Florida is struggling with an issue that is roiling college campuses nationwide. The case raises concerns about how well USF has protected and supported a woman who felt victimized by a fellow student, in turn putting a focus on its overall handling of sexual assault complaints. USF should use this moment to re-evaluate its practices to ensure it is doing enough to help victims while protecting the rights of the accused.
Samantha Garrett, a 26-year-old doctoral student, said she was sexually assaulted last fall by another student in her psychology program. About three weeks passed before Garrett told a professor about the attack — delays in reporting sexual assaults are not unusual — and the school launched an investigation. The accused student, Andrew Thurston, was found responsible for violating the student code of conduct for "non-consensual intercourse and non-consensual sexual contact." As Times staff writer Claire McNeill reported, Thurston was given the choice of a formal hearing or accepting sanctions. He chose the sanctions, which his attorney says does not equate to admitting responsibility. He denies the allegations and has not been charged with a crime.
The case underscores both the delicate balance schools must strike in seeking justice in such cases, and the importance of their role separate from the criminal justice system. Accusations of criminal conduct should be handled by the police and the courts. But criminal cases can fall apart for many reasons, and sexual assault cases are especially difficult to prosecute. There are often no witnesses other than the accuser and the accused. If time has elapsed, there may be no physical evidence.
The federal anti-discrimination law known as Title IX requires colleges and universities to protect students from discrimination. Guided by Title IX, universities can make accommodations for course work, providing mental health services or allowing a transfer to a different class or dorm to separate alleged victims and perpetrators.
This is where USF’s response to Garrett seems to have fallen short. The sanctions Thurston accepted, according to the lawsuit, were a deferred suspension through May 2018, allowing him to continue his studies on campus; two meetings with a university official; and a request that he "refrain from making contact" with Garrett. So Garrett may continue facing Thurston in parking lots, campus buildings and classrooms. As a result, she says, she has experienced panic attacks and dropped three classes. That does not sound like equal access to education.
It’s possible, of course, for the pendulum to swing too far the other way. During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education issued new guidelines, including a requirement that colleges use the lowest standard of proof in deciding whether a student is responsible for sexual assault, and opened investigations of schools it suspected of mishandling sexual misconduct cases. Victims’ rights groups cheered, but there was legitimate concern that the rights of accused students were not being adequately protected. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has proposed revisions, most notably restoring the use of the higher standard of proof that previously had been used, which was clear and convincing evidence. What she has proposed is reasonable and will undergo rigorous review, factoring in public comment, before taking effect.
Universities have an obligation to protect equal access to education. It’s no easy charge, and USF should constantly strive to be responsive, decisive and fair.