Yesterday, USA Today published a report detailing LSU’s mishandling of various sexual assault complaints that resulted in a lack of accountability for repeat offenders of sexual assault and dating violence within LSU’s athletic and fraternity systems. STAR echoes the concerns raised by students featured in the article and we want to respond to these allegations by providing additional context to the community about what we see happening at LSU as it pertains to sexual assault investigation and prevention initiatives.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men experience sexual assault while in college. Many colleges and universities report that they are working to prevent sexual violence on their campuses and against their students; however, their approach is not always comprehensive or trauma-informed.
STAR is a certified, trusted provider of sexual assault support services in Louisiana. Over the years, STAR has repeatedly offered to assist LSU in developing and improving its efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus. LSU is a vast, complex institution. And while we have been fortunate to partner consistently with programs such as the LSU Women’s Center, the Women’s and Gender Studies Department, and the LSU Lighthouse Program, which provides support to survivors of sexual assault on campus, we have been ignored and dismissed by other departments and programs within the university that we know are hotspots for sexual assault, specifically LSU’s Greek system and the athletics department.
In April 2017, STAR sent a letter to LSU’s then-President F. King Alexander, then-Athletics Director Joe Alleva, and Football Coach Ed Orgeron, expressing concerns about how the athletics department was approaching its sexual assault prevention efforts. In this letter, which you can read here, we also referenced a tweet by Derrius Guice in support of a former high school teammate who had committed rape. The fact that Derrius Guice was recently released by the Washington Football Team after being charged with domestic violence, and that recent reporting has uncovered a history of Guice committing dating violence and sexual assault that goes back to his time at LSU, should not be surprising given his attitudes about sexual assault that he publicly demonstrated at the time. STAR received no response to this letter from any of the three individuals we sent it to.
STAR continues to push for institutional change at LSU and other colleges and universities in Louisiana. For years, STAR’s legal team has represented survivors in Title IX complaints when their rights have been violated by campus responses to reports of sexual assault. We are able to do so thanks to federal funding we applied for and received, and are one of only a few sexual assault centers in the nation to have a program like this. We have also helped cultivate a student group on campus, Tigers Against Sexual Assault (TASA), led by LSU students who are informed and passionate about preventing sexual assault on campus. With STAR’s support, TASA has worked to educate students about Title IX and request that the LSU administration provide more training to prevent sexual violence on campus.
In our work with students and survivors of sexual assault, the patterns we see align with information uncovered by USA Today’s reporting. We have observed repeated instances where:
- LSU is reluctant to hold perpetrators of alcohol-facilitated sexual assault responsible in Title IX hearings, despite significant documentary evidence showing that a sexual assault was committed.
- LSU has repeatedly put the burden on victims to alter their lives and education (e.g., changing their class schedule) rather than putting the burden on perpetrators to do so, even when LSU has found these perpetrators responsible for sexual assault in campus proceedings.
- LSU students are not made aware of STAR’s free and confidential legal representation to survivors to ensure their rights are protected throughout the reporting process and administrative hearings. Instead, LSU typically refers students to on-campus victim advocates that are not attorneys and would also have a conflict with advocating for survivors when the school response is deficient.
- LSU has not taken action to address internal Title IX processes that students have complained are not working as intended.
LSU students who experience sexual violence should have access to holistic support services and legal representation to ensure that their rights are protected throughout the reporting and investigation process. However, despite STAR’s attempts to request LSU’s collaboration on providing services to survivors, LSU does not appear to make it a consistent practice to provide students with information about STAR’s services and how these differ from LSU’s in-house support services for sexual assault survivors.
We’ve seen the reports that LSU has contracted with a law firm to review its Title IX policies. We agree with this course of action, however we have additional recommendations for LSU to demonstrate a true commitment to providing a safe learning environment:
- Take complaints seriously. One of the things reported in the USA Today article was athletic coaches not believing or taking seriously reports of sexual assault and dating violence. As an institution, how is LSU holding its staff, even highly valued staff, responsible for taking complaints seriously? How is it rewarding those who do take complaints seriously and take appropriate action? There are many reasons why organizational leaders may not want to take complaints seriously. Such complaints can be disruptive to organizations, relationships, and short-term profits. However, there is nothing more important than taking complaints of sexual assault seriously. Doing so requires pushing through fear and uncertainty. It also requires allowing for the possibility that the assault occurred. Taking complaints seriously is the brave, responsible, and necessary thing to do.
- Publicize multiple options for students considering reporting or needing support. Students may not want to report their assault right away or they may not trust LSU’s support services for students who have experienced sexual assault, especially now. Providing information about STAR’s services in public statements regarding sexual assault, even if that is ultimately challenging to LSU as an institution, would demonstrate a greater commitment to students’ safety and well-being.
- Contract with an outside victim services agency to provide holistic consulting regarding sexual assault prevention and response efforts. Consulting with law firms to review legal compliance is necessary, however compliance alone won’t effectively address the problem of sexual assault on campus. STAR staff have a wealth of knowledge about the issue of sexual assault. In addition to our direct connection to LSU, we provide training and consulting services that are highly regarded.
- Acknowledge and confront the problem. Minimizing, downplaying, or denying the problem is not an option. Now is a time for leaders at LSU to learn about and acknowledge the problem to inform change and/or better enforce systems. We recognize that this is an institutional issue and we know there are individual employees at LSU who genuinely care about and do their best to support survivors on campus. However, this is clearly not enough. More is required, and it needs to start at the top. While there may be short-term costs to doing this, the longer-term financial and reputational costs of not doing so will be much greater.
- Hold offenders accountable. In the USA Today report, one survivor expressed her belief that LSU is afraid of lawsuits filed by those accused of sexual assault. First of all, this is why ensuring survivors’ access to legal representation is crucial to balancing power between those who have experienced sexual assault and those who have committed it. Survivors also have rights and can file lawsuits, too. Second, making decisions to not hold offenders accountable out of this fear is replicating the same fear students have in not coming forward. It is the job of the institution to model facing fears and facing costs to hold accountable those who are creating an unsafe environment for others.
It’s also important to recognize that these issues are not limited to the institution of LSU. The Trump administration, under Betsy DeVos’ leadership, reduced the budget for the Office of Civil Rights to investigate institutions that are failing to comply with Title IX regulations, and changed Title IX regulations in ways that will further decrease reporting of sexual assault and accountability for those who commit sexual assault on college campuses. This past weekend, Jameis Winston, a player who has had multiple sexual assault allegations made against him, stepped in as Saints quarterback when starting quarterback Drew Brees was injured during Sunday’s game.
At all levels of sports, from high school to collegiate to professional, we observe a continued tolerance of sexual violence and a culture of sweeping reports of sexual assault and intimate partner violence under the rug whenever possible. We hope leaders and participants in every institution, small and large, athletics-related or not, will take this opportunity to examine their policies and practices regarding sexual assault prevention and response. If we’re not winning at people’s safety and well-being, we’re losing.