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  • University of Florida Quarterback Is Reinstated After Accuser Withdraws Sexual Assault Complaint

    James Ryan, the Partner-in-Charge of the Education Litigation Department of Cullen and Dykman LLP was recently featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, regarding the highly publicized University of Florida (the “University”) case.[1] The case, involving Treon Harris, the quarterback of the University’s football team, comes amid a nationwide discussion about the alleged mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints on college campuses.

    Before we look at the various issues surrounding the Florida case, let’s look at the sequence of events that have transpired over the past week:

    • On Sunday, October 5, 2014, it is alleged that Harris sexually assaulted a female student at an on-campus residence hall. University police were called to the residence hall, which ignited both a criminal investigation and the University’s own investigation into the allegations.
    • On Monday, October 6, 2014, Harris was immediately suspended from campus, classes, the football team and its activities. On the same day, University President Bernie Machen released a statement: “We have no tolerance for sexual assault on our campus. The university is committed to providing a safe and inclusive environment for every member of the UF community. We must strive to protect all of our students from sexual harassment and assault, and do everything in our power to promote a safe learning environment.”
    • On Thursday, October 9, 2014, Huntley Johnson, an attorney for Harris, issued a statement that vehemently declared his client’s innocence. “Misstatements in the media to date have pained a picture that is inconsistent with the evidence. That said, we have fully cooperated with the investigation,” said Johnson. Harris “is not guilty of a crime and he did not mistreat this young lady in any way.”
    • On Friday, October 10, 2014, the female student withdrew her criminal complaint. According to a statement issued on Friday by the University, “this means she is not pursuing criminal charges against him at this time but maintains the right to do so in the future.”
    • Following the withdrawal of the complaint, Will Muschamp, the University’s head football coach, issued a statement saying that Harris has been reinstated and that “this has been a learning experience for everyone involved.” Harris “is no longer banned from campus” and is permitted to “resume UF activities.” The University also stated that it is not taking any additional action against Harris.

    Supporters of the University’s decision to immediately suspend Harris allege that the University acted properly and in accordance with Title IX in this case. To that end, it is well settled that pursuant to Title IX, upon notice of a claim of sexual assault, institutions are required to take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the sexual violence, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy its effects. In an effort to protect the complainant and ensure his or her safety, the U.S. Department of Education has made clear that institutions may impose interim measures, such as arranging for alternative housing or academic accommodations for the accused, even before they fully investigate the alleged misconduct or render a disciplinary determination.

    In the alternative, critics of the University’s decision argue that the University rushed to judgment and violated Harris’s due process rights in this “he said, she said” situation. Critics also point to the fact that Title IX is based on the fundamental principles of impartiality and fairness for both the complainant and the accused student. Institutions must maintain prompt and equitable grievance procedures and both the complainant and the accused must be afforded equal rights. Here, it is alleged that the University did not afford Harris any due process rights before he was suspended and that President Machen’s initial statement, in and of itself, is not in keeping with the presumption of innocence that forms the basis of our criminal justice system.

    The stakes are high all around as institutions struggle to balance their obligations under Title IX to timely respond to a claim of sexual misconduct and provide well-established protections for the complainant, while at the same time, afford proper due process rights to the accused student. In the meantime, an exceptional number of colleges and universities have recently been accused (by both complainants and alleged wrongdoers) of mishandling complaints of sexual violence in violation of Title IX. Many of these cases involve alleged victims claiming that their institutions failed to comply with Title IX by not taking immediate action in response to a claim of sexual assault. However, “reverse Title IX” claims, where the accused files suit for failing to conduct a fair and equitable investigation, have also become commonplace. At an increasing rate, students who have been accused of sexual misconduct are suing their institutions under Title IX alleging that the “presumed guilty” mindset that many colleges and universities maintain has resulted in serious miscarriages of justice for accused students and that these institutions have grossly violated their due process rights.

    When properly implemented, Title IX shields students and guides institutions on how to maintain a safe campus environment. At the same time, Title IX can be, and currently is, being used as a sword by both victims and accused students in an effort to punish institutions for improperly responding to claims of sexual misconduct. Institutions must stay abreast to the ever-changing Title IX climate, as it has the ability to have practical as well as legal implications for all colleges and universities.

    If your institution would like further information, please email Hayley B. Dryer at hdryer@cullenanddykman.com or call her at (516) 357-3745.

    [1] http://chronicle.com/article/At-U-of-Florida-More/149359/