Florida State University officials confirmed Friday that they are investigating a sexual assault allegation against quarterback Jameis Winston, but the acknowledgement raised a new question in a case already rife with them — did the school violate federal law?
Winston's accuser reported the incident to university police in December 2012. Because the alleged attack occurred off-campus, the Tallahassee Police Department took over.
However, Title IX, a federal law, mandates that immediately after a school is informed of such an accusation it must conduct a "prompt, thorough, and impartial" investigation that should take about 60 days to complete, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Given that the inquiry remains ongoing, it's unclear how Florida State could have met those standards: The university's investigation has either lasted well more than two months, or school officials did not begin the inquiry when the alleged assault was reported to campus police.
Winston, who through his attorney has denied all wrongdoing, has not been charged with a crime. Though a prized recruit at the time of the accusation, he did not enjoy near the fame he does now as the quarterback for a team contending for the national championship. For reasons not yet explained, prosecutors didn't learn of the case until last week. In January, a Tallahassee detective told the woman's attorney that her client's life would be made "miserable" if she pursued the case, the woman's family said in a statement earlier this week.
After DNA tests linking Winston to the woman were leaked late Wednesday evening, Winston's attorney, Tim Jansen, asserted the two had consensual sex and that two witnesses will corroborate that claim.
The woman's family responded with a statement Friday night through their attorney, Patricia Carroll. The family questioned why Jansen would worry about the leaked DNA results if the sex was consensual, and it called Jansen's defense "reactive damage control" to the DNA match.
"To be clear, the victim did not consent," the family said in the statement. "This was a rape."
On Friday, after meeting with a school's general counsel and another spokesperson, vice president of university relations Liz Maryanski told the Tampa Bay Times that how they handle sexual assault complaints from students "depends how the facts are reported and the circumstances of each situation." Initially, though, she said they put students in touch with the police and a victim's advocate.
She made no mention of university-led investigations.
When asked directly if the school follows the federal mandate, she said: "We adhere to those instructions."
Maryanski refused to say when the university began investigating its Heisman Trophy candidate for the No. 2-ranked Seminoles.
According to the Department of Education, university investigations should not be dependent on the existence — or outcome — of a criminal query.
"Conduct may constitute unlawful sexual harassment under Title IX even if the police do not have sufficient evidence of a criminal violation," the department said in 2011. "In addition, a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably."
But experts say universities routinely violate the law when handling complaints of sexual violence — despite the federal government's widespread educational efforts.
"At this date, any school that is not complying with Title IX is doing so deliberately, not negligently," said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center.
So why would so many schools fail to comply?
Consequences, the experts say, are almost nonexistent.
"Against the individual school," Bruno said, "there is very little."
However, lawyers say that if someone can prove deliberate indifference, institutions could be vulnerable to litigation.
For example, seven current and former University of Connecticut female students — four of whom are suing — have filed a Title IX complaint against the school, saying it failed to properly respond to their reports of sexual assault. At least two of the women say they were raped by school athletes.
As part of a nationwide uptick in recent years, similar high-profile complaints have also been lodged at Vanderbilt and Yale.
Times staff writer Matt Baker and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.