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Florida State wrestled with Title IX interpretation in Jameis Winston case

Jameis Winston was never charged in alleged rape.

Jameis Winston was never charged in alleged rape.

As schools nationally deal with evolving Title IX guidelines, newly obtained documents show how Florida State University struggled to interpret them in the Jameis Winston case.

An FSU official testified that the university planned to pursue a disciplinary hearing on Winston during the Seminoles' national championship run in the fall of 2013. But before it took place, the school's policy shifted, according to a sworn deposition from Melissa Ashton, who was the director of FSU's victim advocate program at the time.

"Everything was changing hourly," Ashton testified in June.

FSU released a heavily redacted copy of Ashton's deposition under open-records laws in November when the school was contesting a since-settled Title IX lawsuit filed by Zephyrhills' Erica Kinsman.

But the full transcript of Ashton's deposition — obtained by the Tampa Bay Times — sheds more insight into the case and the problems universities face in understanding federal directives.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights issued a letter telling schools to change the culture of on-campus sexual harassment and violence. How universities accomplish that was left open to interpretation. Stetson University law professor Peter Lake compared it to receiving a bike on Christmas morning but only having directions to assemble the seat.

OCR has tried to clarify its guidelines, providing feedback through enforcement rulings and issuing 53 pages of questions and answers in 2014. In a statement, OCR said those clarifications "do not create additional legal obligations" to the 42-year-old Title IX.

But schools were still left scrambling to make sure they were in compliance, said Brett Sokolow, the Association of Title IX Administrators' executive director.

"They weren't changing by the minute, but things were changing every time new guidance would come out," Sokolow said. "And new guidance was coming out left and right."

Schools were expected to adapt to that guidance almost immediately. While Sokolow spoke generally about the issue, Ashton said FSU was like many other universities — "trying to figure it out" with each update.

That continued during the Winston case.

When Kinsman identified Winston as a rape suspect in January 2013, Ashton said FSU's victim advocates guided complainants through the process without reporting all cases to a Title IX coordinator.

Before Kinsman's allegation became public that fall, a second case involving a different woman was reported to FSU's housing department, according to Ashton's deposition.

Details about the second case have not been made public. Winston has not publicly commented on it. Kinsman's attorneys called the encounter rape in her lawsuit against FSU, but an assistant state attorney told the New York Times in 2014 that the woman didn't consider it rape.

Regardless of the specifics, Ashton testified that the school planned to follow its revised protocol: Pursue every case, even if a complainant won't cooperate.

"(The) University said we are moving forward on all cases, regardless of victim wishes, because we are mandated to," Ashton said in the deposition. "So, it was our understanding that at that point, the University was going to be moving forward on that other case."

Ashton said her department told Kinsman about the other incident so she could make an "informed decision" about cooperating in a potential hearing.

But the school's policy changed again "within a few days," Ashton testified. Complainants could opt out of the process by signing a waiver.

"I don't think I was ever informed formally as to why it was changing," Ashton said in the deposition. "It was just this is what we're doing now. This is what we have to do now."

No hearing took place with the second case. In a December 2014 university hearing, a retired Florida Supreme Court justice cleared Winston of four conduct violations from Kinsman's accusations. Winston, now the Bucs' quarterback, was never arrested or charged with a crime and has maintained his innocence.

Ashton testified that the school has changed its policy more than once since the Winston case.

"Florida State's actions reflected that we were continually adjusting our procedures to comply with federal protocols, even when those were not always clear," FSU president John Thrasher said Thursday in a statement.

Stetson's Lake said schools across the country have been shifting policies while facing the "moving target" of victims that don't want to cooperate.

"It's easy to project nefarious behavior or incompetence," said Lake, the director of Stetson's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy. "But it really is changing all the time."

A federal Title IX investigation into FSU's handling of the case remains ongoing. As of last month, 160 similar cases were open at schools across the country. That's up from 55 in May 2014.

FSU and Kinsman settled her lawsuit last month, and a federal judge ordered the case closed Thursday. Kinsman has also filed a sexual battery civil suit against Winston, who countersued her for defamation. A trial is set for March 2017 in Orlando.

The Tampa Bay Times does not typically name victims or possible victims of sexual assault, but Kinsman has told her story publicly, including in a documentary, The Hunting Ground.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

Florida State wrestled with Title IX interpretation in Jameis Winston case 02/18/16 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2016 9:29pm]
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