At U. of Florida, More Questions Than Answers as Rape Charges Are Dropped

October 13, 2014

Within less than a week, the University of Florida felt all sides of the tempest that swirls around sexual assault on campuses, especially when it involves big-time sports. A quarterback was accused of rape. The university acted quickly to suspend him from the team and bar him from the campus. And then just days later, the woman dropped her criminal complaint.

All of that left still more questions than answers. Was Treon Harris treated unfairly by a university worried about its reputation? Or did the rapid and public way the case unfolded pressure the accuser to drop her complaint?

Her decision, which prompted the university to lift the quarterback’s campus ban and suspension, occurred one day after Mr. Harris’s lawyer, Huntley Johnson, issued a news release that described the woman as a "sexual aggressor" who had reportedly been intimately involved with another man earlier in the day.

That statement ignited a firestorm on social-media and public-comment sites, with some saying it was a classic case of blaming the victim. To others, the questions raised about the woman’s account reinforced their conviction that Mr. Harris was the victim of a rush to judgment.

Universities risk losing federal funds if they violate Title IX rules that, among other things, require them to immediately investigate complaints of sexual harassment or violence. And they are required to conduct their own internal inquiries, whether or not criminal charges are filed.

It’s unclear whether Florida conducted such an investigation in the days leading up to its statement on Friday that "university and legal action" had been completed and that Mr. Harris had been cleared to return. Asked over the weekend whether an investigation had taken place, a university spokeswoman, Janine Sikes, stopped short of confirming that, citing federal privacy laws.

"Title IX requires a thorough investigation into any Title IX complaint," she said. "The University of Florida’s practice is to do this anyway, and of course we comply with federal laws."

‘Swift and Decisive Action’

The controversy began a week ago Sunday, when a student accused Mr. Harris of raping her in a campus residence hall in the early morning hours. The football team suspended Mr. Harris the next day. He was temporarily banned from the campus but was permitted to continue his online classes. "The university always will take swift and decisive action when we have concerns about the safety of our students," a university statement read.

On Friday, after the criminal complaint was dropped for now, Florida’s head football coach, Will Muschamp, said that the legal process was over and that Mr. Harris had been reinstated to the team but wouldn’t play in Saturday’s game against Louisiana State University.

"This has been a learning experience for everyone involved," the coach said. "Treon has been honest with me throughout the process and is looking forward to joining his teammates."

Social-media sites continued to buzz over the weekend as students, alumni, and those who monitor sexual-assault cases dissected the developments.

Jim Ryan, a partner with the New York law firm of Cullen and Dykman who advises colleges in Title IX cases, said there’s nothing wrong with suspending a player from a sports team while an investigation is under way. But he said that barring him from the campus and saying, in the news release announcing his suspension, that the university has "no tolerance for sexual assault" implied that the quarterback was guilty.

That, he said, reflects a "rush to judgment" he believes is rampant on college campuses today when dealing with cases he described as "he said, she said."

Colleges that used to be lax in dealing with sexual-assault complaints are now too rigid, Mr. Ryan said. "It’s morphed into such hysteria that the accused is guilty until they prove themselves innocent."

Backlash for Accusers

The accused isn’t the only one whose name gets dragged through the mud, said Jennifer L. Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. Much of the public reaction to Mr. Johnson’s letter refuting the accusation was aimed at the accuser, she pointed out.

"The message to women who are thinking about reporting their assaults is pretty clear," Ms. Dritt said in an email to The Chronicle. "This is what you’re in for. Do you really want to go through with this? It’s only going to get worse."

John D. Foubert, a professor of higher education and student affairs at Oklahoma State University, is president of One In Four, a nonprofit rape-prevention program. He believes the university was too quick to reinstate Mr. Harris.

"It does not seem plausible that a complete investigation could have been finished so quickly," he wrote in an email. "Though they may certainly be eager to have Mr. Harris on the gridiron, there remain serious questions regarding his potential threat to the community in Gainesville. Women don’t just go around accusing men of rape for no apparent reason. It takes guts and grit to file a case."

Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, a nonprofit group working to help colleges strengthen efforts at sexual-violence prevention, said the university should make sure that the accuser wasn’t intimidated, threatened, or pressured into dropping charges. The woman maintained the right to file charges in the future, university officials said.

"One of the most critical components to reducing the incidence of rape on campus is to encourage reporting," she said. "The public actions in this case point to why so few survivors come forward."

Heated reactions from both sides are par for the course in sexual-assault cases, said Teresa Valerio Parrot, a crisis consultant for universities.

"The update in Florida underscores the fact that these issues are unbelievably complex," she wrote in an email. "An institution that acts with the best of intentions and is praised for its actions one day can come under fire the next as these incredibly fluid events tend to unfold over time."

New Investigation at Florida State

Meanwhile, as the case at the University of Florida was winding down, Florida State University has reopened an investigation into allegations that its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Jameis Winston, sexually assaulted a female student in December 2012.

ESPN reported on Friday that Mr. Winston had been notified that he would face a disciplinary hearing in that case.

The New York Times reported on Friday that its own investigation had concluded that the university’s treatment of the Winston complaint was consistent with how the police had frequently "soft-pedaled allegations of wrongdoing by Seminoles football players."

Fox Sports reported on the same day that its inquiry had concluded that the university and the Tallahassee police "took steps to hide, then hinder" a criminal investigation into the allegations against Mr. Winston.

Mr. Winston, who was never charged or dismissed from the team, has contended the sexual contact was consensual. The student who filed the complaint left the university after her identity was revealed and she feared for her safety, her lawyer said.

Florida State officials posted an open letter on Friday saying they had remained silent on the investigation to protect students, but had changed course because of a "drumbeat of misinformation" about the university’s handling of the case.

The letter provided an outline that describes how the university responded and ultimately concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue a Title IX complaint against someone described only as "a prominent athlete." The university is one of more than 70 under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education over their compliance with Title IX rules.

"We did not want you to confuse our silence with idleness, a lack of caring, or, as some have alleged, an institutional conspiracy to protect a star athlete," the statement concluded.