Redacted Deposition: University Protects Football Players Accused of Sexual Assault

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Redacted Deposition: University Protects Football Players Accused of Sexual Assault

Zoe Greenberg

The school’s top victim advocate describes the university’s response to sexual assault as one that favored football players and often resulted in rape survivors withdrawing instead of perpetrators getting expelled.

In a deposition that Florida State University fought to keep secret, the school’s top victim advocate describes the university’s response to sexual assault as one that favored football players and often resulted in rape survivors withdrawing instead of perpetrators getting expelled.

Melissa Ashton, the former director of the Victim Advocate Program at FSU, said that her office served 113 victims of sexual battery (Florida’s term for rape) in 2014. But the university reported 20 cases of sexual battery to the federal government in 2014, according to the school’s annual crime report.

The discrepancy between the two figures exists because the majority of incidents occurred off-campus, Ashton said, and federal law only requires universities to report sexual crimes that take place on school grounds.

Ashton, in her nine years at FSU, estimated that her office handled 40 cases of rape or intimate partner violence involving football players. One football player that she could recall was found responsible of rape by the university during that time.

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“The majority of survivors choose not to go through a [hearing] process a lot of times based on fear,” Ashton said. She explained that survivors on campus have a “fear of retaliation, seeing what has happened in other cases and not wanting that to be them.”

The testimony is part of a federal Title IX lawsuit filed by Erica Kinsman, who says Jameis Winston, a former FSU football star and now the quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, raped her when they were both undergraduates and FSU did not adequately investigate the crime.

A university code of conduct hearing last year cleared Winston of wrongdoing. In December 2013, the local prosecutor said he did not have enough evidence to press charges criminally, after what the New York Times called a “flawed rape investigation.” Kinsman is now suing Winston in civil court; he is counter-suing for defamation. The case is receiving renewed attention after the documentary The Hunting Ground, in which Kinsman appears, premiered on CNN last week.

In an email statement to Rewire, the university said, “We have no way to confirm or deny Ms. Ashton’s claims given that her communications with such victims are confidential.”

“The number of 100, whether accurate or not, would include victims reporting both recent/current experiences and those who may have experienced victimizations long before coming to FSU but are triggered by something and want to talk,” the statement read. The school maintained that Ashton’s office does not track cases involving specific sports, so that an estimate of how many assaults involved football players would be difficult to verify.

FSU tried to get a federal judge to block the release of all the depositions related to Kinsman’s case, according to the Associated Press, but the judge refused. Unable to keep the documents secret, the university released heavily redacted depositions late on the eve of Thanksgiving. Browning Brooks, a university spokesperson, told Rewire that the documents were redacted in accordance with Florida’s Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which exempts education files from the public record.

Specific references to Winston and Kinsman are absent from the portions of the depositions that were released. Also absent is any reference to a second woman who apparently sought counseling at FSU after a sexual encounter with Winston, according to the New York Times investigation. When asked by Rewire whether the redacted portions related to the second woman who sought counseling, Brooks wrote, “We can’t characterize the depositions. We released what we could to you. Obviously, we can’t legally comment about things that were redacted.”

Throughout the deposition, Ashton expressed concern that football players at the school received preferential treatment from university officials, law enforcement, and the community. Ashton said football is “all anyone talks about.” The FSU football team brought in more than $74 million in 2013.

Ashton noted that since May 2015, when a rape complainant or her attorney requested records from the university’s Victim Advocate Program, the university’s general counsel first reviewed those records. Thus, the university read confidential documents about sexual assault without student permission.

“This would be Ms. Ashton’s interpretation, not necessarily the university’s,” Brooks wrote.

Ashton resigned in August, according to Brooks. She could not be reached for comment by Rewire.

“If students understood that anything they said to counseling professionals who are working under university resources could be used against them in litigation, that would certainly limit their ability to get the support and services they may need,” Fatima Goss Graves, senior vice president for program at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a phone interview with Rewire.

FSU also released the 186-page deposition of Jimbo Fisher, the school’s head football coach. Many of the pages were blank because they had been redacted, though in the non-redacted sections, Fisher said he knew little about the university’s policies surrounding sexual violence.

“If somebody said there was a sexual assault, in your understanding, what do you think that would be?” Kinsman’s attorney asked Fisher in the filing.

“I would not make that assumption,” Fisher said.

“Okay. What about, let’s say we are talking about sexual harassment, does that mean anything to you?” the attorney asked.

“I would ask somebody who is an expert in that,” Fisher said.

“Okay,” the attorney said. “You don’t understand anything about the university’s policies regarding sexual harassment?”

“Not in detail,” Fisher said.