Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Comparing Universities' Response to Charges of Sexual Assault -- What a Difference a Year Makes?

Last week, the day after he came off the bench to lead the University of Florida to a 10-9 victory over Tennessee, quarterback Treon Harris was accused of sexually assaulting a female student on campus in the early morning of Sunday, October 5.  The following day, the University announced that campus and local police were working together to investigate forensic evidence, and that it was suspending Harris from the team in the meanwhile. Citing "no tolerance" for sexual assault, University president Bernie Machen vowed that student safety was the institution's top priority.  But last Friday, Harris's accuser withdrew her complaint.  The university reinstated Harris and he is expected to be back on the field this weekend. 

Meanwhile, 150 miles away in Tallahassee, Florida State is struggling to get a handle on its own controversy arising from allegations of its quarterback's sexual assault controversy. This week Fox Sports News reported on evidence seeming to suggest that FSU officials and Tallahassee police worked together to delay turning over the case to the state prosecutor and give a "head start" to the attorney for accused Jameis Winston. Moreover, the university's own public statement released in advance of that report as preemptive damage control may have backfired in that it has provided ammunition to the victim's attorney to point out that the university athletic department's early role in the Winston case was concealed from other branches of the university like its Title IX office.

What do we make of these two Sunshine State examples, in close proximity of time and space, but otherwise worlds apart?  For one thing, I don't think we'll ever know what prompted a student to accuse Harris of sexual assault and then withdraw that complaint. One possibility is that she deliberately filed a false charge against Harris and then later had a change of heart; at the other extreme, it's possible that she' a victim two-times over -- first of sexual assault and then of social pressure to stay silent. Or, maybe she was deterred from standing by her initial accusation after weighing the downside of going forward and having to deal with upheaval that Winston's accuser has faced, against the downside of going without justice. If either of those last two possibilities reflect the truth, this case represents that we still have a ways to go as a society in terms of the support we provide to victims and the respect we give to their privacy. 

Yet by comparing University of Florida to Florida State, we might also come to a tentative conclusion that at least university culture is moving in the right direction in its response to sexual assault and the prioritization of student safety over athletics.  Even though the charge was later withdrawn, and even though we don't know why, what the University of Florida did when it had the charge seems, from what we know, to have been the right thing. Declaring "no tolerance" for sexual assault was not a rush to judgment against Harris but an explanation for the university's prompt response, transparency, and decision to suspend Harris as an appropriate interim measure to protect the students safety. Whatever remains uncertain about Florida State's response to the charges against Winston, it is clear that its response was distinguishable from that of University of Florida under similar circumstances. Maybe we chalk that distinction up to the difference a year makes -- especially a year as big as this past one has been for public attention and legal scrutiny into to the problem of campus sexual assault.