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Rules sought for rape claims

Top Florida educators say they want to consider statewide guidelines for handling rape complaints after learning of the possible mishandling of such an allegation at Pasco-Hernando Community College.

Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor said Wednesday that she would ask that the issue be placed on the next agenda for the State Board of Community Colleges. Castor also expressed concern that the Pasco-Hernando Community College (PHCC) case involved student athletes.

"It just seems that athletics has become such a lightning rod (for such problems) at our institutions," Castor said.

The issue came to light this week when the Times reported that a 19-year-old student athlete said she was raped in September by two other PHCC student athletes at an off-campus apartment. College officials investigated and closed the case after the accused athletes said their accuser consented to sex.

The accuser also admitted to school officials that she was drunk and remembered little of the incident. But school officials failed to interview three young women who said they saw the incident and who referred to it as a rape.

The executive director of the community college system said that even before speaking with Castor, he asked the staff attorney to come up with a recommendation about whether to develop a statewide set of guidelines. The alternative, he said, would be to have each community college develop its own set of guidelines.

State board director Clark Maxwell also said he spoke with PHCC president Milton Jones on Wednesday and "asked the president to send me a complete report on the issue."

The thorny issue of handling rape allegations generated discussion locally as well. Several members of the PHCC Board of Trustees and the PHCC Foundation, a fund-raising group, said Wednesday they supported the handling of the matter by Jones and his staff. They also said they will discuss at their next meeting how to handle such allegations.

"I think all colleges could use a set of guidelines," said Judy Braak, chairman of the PHCC Board of Trustees. "Do we all develop our own set of guidelines? Do we call police even if it's against the wishes of the young woman and her mother? These are questions we need to address."

"I thought (Jones) handled it well," Braak said. "I thought the staff did an exceptional job."

Unlike the State University System, in which university presidents answer directly to a statewide chancellor, community college presidents answer to a local board made up of community leaders.

PHCC president Jones said he spent most of Wednesday fielding questions from news media. Jones said that he also spoke with several members of the board of trustees, who generally were supportive, but that some had "questions and concern and wanted more information."

Earlier this week, Jones instructed college attorney Christy Hessler to develop a set of guidelines for handling sexual assault allegations. Jones said he expects that before long, each state community college will have a set of guidelines.

"I will probably be the first," Jones said.

On Monday, Jones called for a reopening of the case after he spoke with Hessler, who sat through many hours of interviews of college staff with Times reporters. Jones said he reopened the investigation in light of new information and "to see, did we miss something here?"

Without talking to other witnesses, college officials closed the matter in September after hearing from athletic director Bobby Bowman, who reported the athletes' claim that the sex was consensual. Officials also heard from the complainant, who told a teacher that she had been raped but that she remembered little.

School officials said the complainant declined to call police, and officials thought the case was closed after they gave her what she wanted: privacy and a transfer to another campus.

Moments after hearing Jones' comments regarding the case on a television news show Wednesday, the complainant and her mother said they didn't think the college president should try to explain what her wishes were because he never spoke with her directly. The young woman agreed last week to talk with Times reporters because of her dissatisfaction with the handling of the matter.

"When I wanted them to do something, they didn't," the young woman said Wednesday. "And now they're making a big deal about it. I'm tired of it now."

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