Saturday, December 16, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: USF should revisit approach to Title IX protections

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.

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Editorial: Warren’s smart approach on guns, domestic violence

Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren would make it safer for victims and police alike with his plan to remove firearms from defendants charged with domestic violence. These cases are toxic enough, and having guns at the ready only adds to a dang...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

Editorial: St. Petersburg council right to reject Bayfront deal

The St. Petersburg City Council made the difficult but correct decision this week to reject the proposed sale of a local nonprofit’s minority stake in Bayfront hospital. Despite months of negotiations, there were too many questions, a few suspicions ...
Published: 12/15/17
Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Editorial: Congress should fix flood insurance, children’s health insurance before Christmas

Here’s a snapshot of misplaced priorities in Washington. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission foolishly rushed to scrap net neutrality rules and allow internet service providers to treat different content differently despite overwhelming ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

Editorial: Scott’s smart changes to sexual harassment policy

With misconduct allegations rippling through all levels of government, Gov. Rick Scott has taken the prudent step of ordering uniform sexual harassment policies throughout state agencies. The executive order strengthens protections for victims, which...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

Editorial: MOSI faces a clean slate and should give everyone a piece of chalk

For three years, the only news about finances at Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry was bad news: "Struggling MOSI asks Hillsborough County for $400,000 loan," one headline read, "Audit sees MOSI finances slipping," read another, and "MOSI donor ...
Published: 12/14/17
Updated: 12/15/17
Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

Editorial: Rubio should make good his threat to oppose tax cuts without changes

For once, it would be nice to see Sen. Marco Rubio stand up as the independent leader he aspires to become. For once, the Florida Republican should hold his position rather than bow to pragmatic politics. Rubio can stick with his threat Thursday to v...
Published: 12/14/17

Another voice: A shameful anniversary

Josephine "Joey" Gay should have celebrated her 12th birthday this week. She should have been surrounded by friends and family in a place festooned with purple, her favorite color.Chase Kowalski should have been working toward a Boy Scout merit badge...
Published: 12/13/17
Updated: 12/14/17
Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling. With t...
Published: 12/13/17

Another voice: Alabama picks an honorable man

THANK YOU, Alabama.In Tuesday’s special election, the state by a narrow margin chose to spare the nation the indignity of seating an accused child molester in the U.S. Senate. Though the stain of electing Republican Roy Moore would have sullied Alaba...
Published: 12/12/17
Updated: 12/13/17
Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts aren’t worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17