The past year has seen a wave of sexual assault, rape, and abuse scandals unfold at dozens of colleges, from Harvard to Vanderbilt to the University of California at Berkeley, which I recently wrote about for Bloomberg Businessweek. Now the New York Times has a front-page investigative story (and accompanying interactive) accusing both the school and local police of mishandling a Florida State University student’s report that she was raped by Jameis Winston, FSU’s star quarterback and winner of the 2013 Heisman Trophy.
It’s hard to report on rape cases, especially ones that take place at a university, where federal privacy laws shield schools from having to divulge academic and disciplinary information about their students. But the Times’ Walt Bogdanich (full disclosure: Bogdanich is a former professor of mine) has done a fabulous job of piecing together police reports, phone records, and other documents to create a timeline of exactly what happened at Florida State and when. It’s a detailed look at what can happen when one student accuses another of sexual assault—and why so many cases go unprosecuted.
The student, who isn’t named in the Times story, filed a police report just hours after her alleged assault took place. She provided the first name of a football player (Chris), friends who’d witnessed events earlier in the evening, and the fact that one of the passengers in the taxi she rode in that night had swiped a student ID card to get a discount on the cab fare. She had a medical examination, against which DNA would later be compared. The bar where she’d been drinking is known to have lots of security cameras, because its college-age customers have a tendency to do things that, well, would behoove a bar to install security cameras.
And yet, for a number of reasons outlined in the story, the police failed to follow up on many of these leads and didn’t even identify a suspect until the woman called a month later and gave them her alleged attacker’s name. Another month later, the lead investigator closed the case.
According to the Times, that investigator had also done “private security work” for the Seminole Boosters, the group that finances Florida State’s athletic programs and paid part of FSU President Eric Barron’s salary. In February, Penn State University announced it had hired Barron to replace its retiring president. In an article about the hiring, USA Today noted that Barron is known for placing a big value on his schools’ athletic success and quoted him as saying, “I really want successful athletic programs because it’s the front door. It’s absolutely the front door to your university.” Collegiate sports are a $16 billion business. Barron is set to start his new job at Penn State in May.
Barron could not be reached for comment. In a statement on its website, FSU says no university official, outside the school’s victim advocate program, received a report “from any complainant naming Winston prior to when the allegations were made public in November 2013,” a denial that presumably extends to Barron. Even so, he did oversee a university that is currently being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for violation of federal law. He has essentially been hired away from one university embroiled in an ever-worsening scandal to join one that’s still recovering from its own. Penn State, you’ll remember, is the school where Jerry Sandusky worked as an assistant football coach; he’s now serving a 30- to 60-year sentence after being convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing 10 boys. Graham Spanier, then Penn State’s president, was later charged in an alleged coverup.
In an e-mail to Bloomberg Businessweek, Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers says the school’s presidential search is confidential but adds that “Penn State Trustees conducted all appropriate, thorough background checks and investigations required by institutional policy.” That may not comfort everyone. If anything, the allegations at FSU suggest that at least some institutional policies have been known to fall short.