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Heisman Trophy: What’s Title IX Got to Do With It?

Heisman Trophy: What’s Title IX Got to Do With It?

By Sarah Belton, Cartwright-Baron Attorney

YFSU Logoesterday, the Florida State Attorney announced that Jameis Winston, the starting Florida State University quarterback, ACC player of the year, and current Heisman trophy candidate won’t face criminal charges for sexual assault.  A female FSU student alleged that Winston raped her at an off campus apartment on December 7, 2012 – almost a year ago.  The female student reported the incident to university police who then referred the case to Tallahassee police.

But wait, this story does not end with the words of the Florida State Attorney.  Instead, while many are now focusing on whether Winston will in fact win the Heisman, advocates are asking what role FSU played in addressing this situation.  Whether FSU met its legal obligations is not certain.  FSU has its own obligations to address the December 2012 incident.  Under Title IX, education programs receiving federal financial assistance – including colleges and universities like FSU – are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of sex.  In a Dear Colleague Letter dated April 4, 2011, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights reaffirmed the Title IX requirements as they relate to student-on-student sexual harassment, including sexual assault.

Under Title IX, a school that knows, or reasonably should know about alleged harassment or sexual assault must conduct an investigation.  That investigation should be prompt.  And the obligation to investigate exists independently of any parallel criminal investigation or proceeding.  The Department of Education specifically notes that schools should not wait until the end of a criminal investigation to move forward.  This is true, in part, because schools must use a preponderance of the evidence standard – rather than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard used in the criminal law context – when making determinations.

And that’s important in this case. The State Attorney has a higher burden – proving the crime to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The State Attorney said he didn’t have enough evidence for that standard. But the school is independently required to look into a case to see if it’s more likely than not that the sexual assault took place.

The Department of Education notes that a typical investigation takes 60 days.  On Friday, November 22, 2013, FSU officials confirmed that they are investigating the sexual assault allegation against Jameis Winston.  This raises questions about whether the university has complied with the requirements of Title IX.  In recent years several colleges and universities, including Notre Dame, UNC, and USC, among others, have been investigated for alleged Title IX violations. 

Tomorrow will mark one year from the date of the incident.  Since that time, Winston has played in – and won – 12 games as the FSU starting quarterback.  But, perhaps what is most relevant today is that regardless of the outcome of FSU’s Title IX investigation, the university is supposed to take steps to minimize the burden on the complaining party. 

Yesterday, a few hours after the Florida state attorney announcement, Winston got on a bus to travel to North Carolina where Saturday FSU will play in the ACC championship game.  Meanwhile, the female student left school after police told her attorney they were releasing information about the case to the media.  We don’t know whether the allegations made against Winston are true, or what the ultimate resolution of FSU’s Title IX investigation will be. But one has to wonder if the real focus hasn’t been on ensuring that FSU’s football season isn’t burdened.