The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation of Florida State University into whether its handling of the Jameis Winston rape allegations violated Title IX laws, according to a letter confirming the decision that was obtained by USA TODAY Sports.
An FSU student said she was raped by Winston on Dec. 7, 2012. Deadspin reported Thursday that school officials met with Winston in late January to discuss the alleged assault. But as it attempts to comply with Title IX, the school might have further violated the law. Both a lengthy delay in conducting the investigation and a meeting only with Winston contradict guidance given to schools in 2011 by OCR.
Sexual harassment and violence are considered forms of sex discrimination under the 1972 federal law, which requires colleges and universities that receive federal funds to investigate claims of sexual assault and provide a timely and impartial grievance procedure to resolve those claims. Non-compliance with the law can result in the department revoking federal funding, although that has never happened.
Florida authorities announced on Dec. 5 that Winston would not face criminal charges, but an OCR investigation will put the case back in the spotlight. The woman filed her complaint with OCR in early March, 16 months after she reported the incident.
In a campus setting, accused students are judged in disciplinary hearings under a much lower "preponderance of evidence" standard than in criminal courts. At FSU, and virtually every other school, a campus disciplinary body determines if an accused student is responsible or not responsible and administers punishments that can range from writing a paper to suspension or expulsion.
While developing those disciplinary procedures is left up to each school, OCR advises, "These procedures must apply to all students, including athletes. If a complaint of sexual violence involved a student athlete, the school must follow its standard procedures for resolving sexual violence complaints."
In its 2011 "Dear Colleague Letter," OCR said, "Conduct may constitute unlawful sexual harassment under Title IX even if the police do not have sufficient evidence of a criminal violation. In addition, a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual violence does not relieve the school of its duty under Title IX to resolve complaints promptly and equitably."
A Florida State official did not immediately respond to questions from USA TODAY Sports.
If Florida State did pursue an investigation in January, it did so without consulting with the woman. A freshman at the time of the alleged assault, she left the school in November after the police investigation dominated national headlines and she became the target of death threats on social media. USA TODAY Sports does not name victims of alleged sexual assaults without their consent.
At the time, Winston was a Heisman Trophy favorite, an award he ultimately won, and FSU was in the midst of a season that would end with the team as undefeated national champions.
Baine Kerr, a high-profile Title IX attorney retained by the woman, says school officials still have not spoken to his client.
"The university went for the better part of a year without requesting her cooperation in any proceedings," he said. "She's consistently been willing to cooperate and assist a university investigation. She remains so.
"She remains willing to respond to any reasonable request for further information from the university so long as her safety is protected."
The woman's lawyers recently offered to provide all interviews she gave during the criminal investigation but have not yet heard back from the university. In announcing its decision not to file criminal charges in December, the state attorney's office made public 248 pages of case files that include the woman's account of what happened.
To this point, Winston has not given his version of events. Through his attorney, he has denied any wrongdoing and said the sexual encounter was consensual. Winston was never interviewed by Tallahassee police or the state attorney. He refused to cooperate with FSU officials in the January meeting, according to Deadspin.
But that meeting in itself might represent a further violation of Title IX.
According to OCR's 2011 letter, "A school should not conduct a pre-hearing meeting during which only the alleged perpetrator is present and given an opportunity to present his or her side of the story, unless a similar meeting takes place with the complainant."
Kerr said the woman was not notified of the meeting.
As it is, OCR will examine whether FSU violated the requirement to provide a "prompt, thorough, and impartial" investigation into sexual assault claims independent of any criminal inquiry.
Although schools can delay an investigation until police have had time to collect evidence, the "Dear Colleague Letter" advises that is typically no longer than 10 days. Colleges are advised not to wait for the conclusion of a criminal investigation to begin their own Title IX investigation. According to the letter, a typical investigation takes 60 days.
The alleged assault was first reported to Florida State police almost immediately after it happened. In her initial recollection, the woman said she did not know the identity of her alleged assailant, but she recognized Winston a month later when she learned his name in roll call in class at the start of spring semester. She informed TPD Det. Scott Angulo on Jan. 10, 2013.
OCR has increased its enforcement as colleges have drawn added scrutiny for their handling of these cases in recent years. A 2007 study by the National Institute of Justice found 1 in 5 women has been the victims of attempted or completed sexual assaults in college.
FSU joins a growing list of schools under investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases, including Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina, Penn State and UConn.
At Michigan, a change in policy led to the expulsion of kicker Brendan Gibbons. In 2009, he was accused of raping another athlete at a party. The woman reported the alleged assault to campus and local police, but Gibbons was never charged.
The school revised its sexual misconduct policy since then, and The Michigan Dailyreported that Gibbons was expelled in December after the Office of Student Conflict Resolution reviewed the case and found him responsible based on a preponderance of evidence.
Doug Smith, a former professor at the school, filed a Title IX complaint in August and OCR opened an investigation in February.
As of mid-March, 47 colleges were under investigation with 38 involving complaints and nine compliance reviews initiated by OCR.
OCR received 11 Title IX complaints related to sexual violence in both the 2009 and 2010 fiscal years. That number jumped to 30 by the 2013 fiscal year. Nearly midway through this year, 25 complaints have been filed.
OCR has initiated four compliance reviews this fiscal year. It conducted only 10 in the previous five years.
The renewed focus on the issue has come since OCR issued the "Dear Colleague Letter."
"That really was seminal," said Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators. "Procedures have changed dramatically. There's no question. I think in a sense, victims have more rights than they had before and there's in value in that."
In January, President Obama appointed the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. It will work with the Education and Justice departments to develop a coordinated federal effort to provide best practice for preventing and responding to sexual assault, build on enforcement efforts and improve transparency.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has her staff surveying colleges around the country to see what they do to protect students from sexual assaults.
The allegation against Winston dominated national headlines in November and December after State Attorney Willie Meggs opened an investigation. The case was inactive for nine months, from February 2013 until November, and police notified the state attorney's office after receiving news media requests for records related to the case.
Tallahassee police were largely criticized by victim advocates and the news media for their handling of the case. Although Winston's DNA was found on the woman's clothing, a DNA sample was not collected until 10 months after the woman identified him to Angulo. Police records indicate surveillance video from Potbelly's – a bar where the woman and two of Winston's teammates confirm they were with him that night – was never collected.
Angulo said the case was moved to inactive as a result of the woman's unwillingness to cooperate, which she has refuted through her local attorney, Patricia Carroll. According to Carroll, Angulo advised her that Tallahassee is a "big football town" and that the woman should reconsider accusing Winston because "she will be raked over the coals and her life will be made miserable."
After concluding the state attorney's investigation, Meggs announced in December that no charges would be filed because a conviction was unlikely.
While Winston has not given his version of events, statements from teammates Chris Casher and Ronald Darby could lead to them being disciplined through Florida State's conduct policy.
In November, the players, who had been out with Winston, provided sworn affidavits through Winston's attorney that they witnessed a consensual sexual encounter between Winston and the woman.
Both admitted to watching through an open door, which would not close because the latch was broken. In a police interview, Casher admitted to going into the room to try to have sex with the woman as well.
"(H)owever, the female saw him and told him to get out," the police report reads. "A little while later, Casher stated he tried to video tape Winston and the female; however, when the female saw him she again told him to leave."
Hours after she reported the alleged attack, the woman told police she remembered "the suspect roommate entered the room and told the suspect to stop."
Under Florida statute, it is illegal to secretly videotape a person while he or she is "dressing, undressing or privately exposing the body" without that person's knowledge or consent. It is a misdemeanor just to observe a person in such a situation.
Meggs said Thursday that he is not pursuing charges against the players and would need the video to press charges.
"The whole thing is disgusting, but that doesn't make it a crime," he said. "If we don't have the video, the admission would not even be admissible. All we have is his statement that it was done."
Casher told police he had deleted the video and discarded the phone by the time he was interviewed 11 months later. Meggs said he did not know what type of phone it was.
It's unclear if Tallahassee police or the state attorney's office tried to recover it through any sort of back-up storage, such as iCloud.
"When we tried to get the video, he said he got rid of it," Meggs said. "All I can tell you is we did everything we knew how to do to get a copy of the video. We do not have a copy of the video. If it's in the cloud, I don't know where it is."