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U.S. investigating FSU's handling of Jameis Winston case

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether Florida State University violated federal laws in how it handled sexual assault allegations against star quarterback Jameis Winston.

The department notified all parties of the Title IX investigation Thursday, a month after receiving a complaint and the same day a report raised more questions about FSU's response to the December 2012 accusations.

Deadspin reported that Winston appeared at a university conduct hearing in January, a few weeks after leading the Seminoles to their third national title. The accuser's attorneys said the woman didn't know about the hearing until after it happened.

The report raises two Title IX issues: Why did the investigation take so long, and has his accuser been able to present her side?

Title IX calls for universities to look into sexual assault accusations as a form of gender discrimination. Federal guidelines expect a resolution in about 60 days, or 10 days after a criminal investigation ends, said Brett Sokolow, the Association of Title IX Administrators' executive director.

Deadspin's time line means FSU didn't hold a hearing until 13 months after the allegations surfaced and at least five weeks after the criminal investigation ended without charges.

"The important time periods are 13 months after the university knew about the assault, 12 months after they knew the identity of the suspect, more than two months after the whole world knew about the case and two weeks after Jameis Winston played in the national championship football game," said John Clune, one of two Title IX attorneys representing Winston's accuser.

At least two FSU departments knew about the case a year before the hearing.

Allegations were first reported to university police shortly after the Dec. 7, 2012, incident. In January 2013, the Tallahassee Police Department called Winston to set up an interview. Later that day, an unnamed "Athletic Directors Assistant" called investigators to ask about the case, according to Tallahassee police emails obtained through an open records request.

The State Attorney's Office didn't learn about the accusations until 10 months later, after requests from the Tampa Bay Times and other outlets reactivated the dormant investigation.

Winston never spoke with police about the allegations, which he and his attorney have denied. And, according to Deadspin, he didn't speak with FSU about them either. Using an anonymous source, the website reported that the Heisman Trophy winner declined to answer questions at the meeting, so the school could not charge him with breaking its code of conduct.

That conduct code allows for formal and informal hearings about possible violations, and Clune said FSU did not tell the accuser about it beforehand.

In a statement to USA Today, FSU said "it is our consistent practice to inform complainants at numerous steps in the counseling process about their options to pursue either criminal or university proceedings — or both."

Title IX requires both parties to have "an equal opportunity to present relevant witnesses and other evidence." Title IX hearings have a lower burden of proof than criminal courts, and accusers must only show with 50.1 percent certainty that a violation occurred.

FSU has not publicly said what steps it took to investigate the allegations.

The school denied an open records request by the Times in November regarding possible disciplinary rulings against Winston or his accuser, who is from the Tampa Bay area. FSU said any possible records were confidential because of privacy laws, even though the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act specifically allows universities to release information about sexual assault cases. The Times does not generally name victims or suspected victims of sexual assault.

Although Winston was not charged with breaking the school's code of conduct, two of his teammates were.

Deadspin wrote that defensive lineman Chris Casher and defensive back Ronald Darby are accused of sexual conduct that "creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment" and invading privacy. Casher was also charged with recording images without permission.

The claims are consistent with testimony the pair gave to investigators in November. Violations of FSU's code of conduct can result in anything from a reprimand to expulsion.

FSU is the most recent university to receive scrutiny under Title IX, a 40-year-old anti-discrimination law. The federal government added a focus on ending on-campus sex crimes with a 2011 memo, leading to investigations or lawsuits at dozens of schools, including Michigan, Penn State and the University of Connecticut.

"I think the Department of Education is more sympathetic to victims' rights than federal courts are," said Peter Lake, the director of Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy.

FSU could be the subject of a lawsuit, too. One of the accuser's attorneys, Baine Kerr, said he'll monitor FSU's disciplinary hearings against all three players while he explores legal options.

"We're continuing to investigate potential claims as we have been," Kerr said.

The accuser's original Dade City-based attorney, Patricia Carroll, declined to comment. Carroll has said she is considering possible lawsuits against Tallahassee police and Winston.

Through a spokesman, the Department of Education confirmed the federal investigation but declined to provide details because of privacy laws.

Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected]

U.S. investigating FSU's handling of Jameis Winston case 04/03/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 9:27am]
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