(Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)
One of Louisiana’s leading advocacy organizations for sexual assault survivors asked LSU to work more closely with the group for years, but its requests have been mostly ignored, according to the organization.
STAR — which is short for Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response — operates in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Alexandria. The group focuses on sexual violence and frequently advises prosecutors on how to handle cases involving trauma.
STAR offers counseling and free legal representation to sexual assault and rape survivors. It also conducts sexual assault prevention training. The staff members are some of the most well-known advocates for sexual violence prevention and anti-harrassment laws in state politics.
In spite of all this experience, STAR said it has received the cold shoulder from certain portions of the LSU community.
“Over the years, STAR has repeatedly offered to assist LSU in developing and improving its efforts to prevent and respond to sexual assault on campus,” the organization said in a statement Tuesday. “And while we have been fortunate to partner consistently with programs such as the LSU Women’s Center, the Women and Gender Studies Department, and the LSU Lighthouse Program, which provides support to survivors of sexual assault on campus, we have been ignored or dismissed by other departments and programs within the university that we know are hotspots for sexual assault, specifically LSU’s Greek system and the athletics department.”
How LSU handles reports of sexual misconduct has been called into question this week after USA Today published a report detailing several cases in which the university may have ignored or downplayed allegations of sexual assault and intimate partner violence by students.
The report singled out LSU’s football team and fraternity culture as being problematic. There have been nine football players reported to police for sexual misconduct since Ed Orgeron took over as head coach in 2016, according to USA Today.
In 2017, STAR raised alarms about LSU’s approach to sexual assault prevention. The organization’s president, Racheal Hebert, chastised LSU for initially inviting former college athletes who had faced sexual misconduct allegations at Vanderbilt University to speak with LSU players.
“We are concerned that giving alleged perpetrators and/or convicted perpetrators a platform to discuss their involvement in sexual assault sends the wrong message,” Hebert wrote in a letter sent to Orgeron, then-LSU President F. King Alexander and then-athletic director Joe Alleva.
Hebert also mentioned in that letter some troubling behavior from one player, Derrius Guice, who also came up repeatedly in USA Today’s stories about sexual misconduct.
A college football star and Baton Rouge native, Guice was accused of rape by two former LSU students in recent USA Today stories. A third student also alleged Guice took a semi-nude photo of her without consent — and then shared it with several other members of the athletic department. A Sports Illustrated reporter who is a woman also came forward recently to say Guice had threatened her while she was trying to write a story about him at LSU. All of these incidents allegedly took place in 2016 and 2017.
Around that same time, STAR flagged some troubling behavior from Guice as well. In her letter to Orgeron that spring, Hebert objected to a social media post from Guice where he expressed support for Connor Whalen, a high school classmate who had just been indicted in the rape of an LSU student.
“I support Connor Whalen. Girls are always at an advantage when it comes to situations like this,” Guice initially posted — but then deleted — on his Twitter account, according to Hebert’s letter.
“We know that comments such as those made by Mr. Guice further the pain and trauma experienced by victims of sexual assault,” Hebert wrote to Orgeron, Alexander and Alleva that April.
Hebert never received a response to her letter and the university never publicly disciplined Guice for any of these incidents. He went on to play in the NFL, though he lost his job with the Washington Football Team earlier this year after being charged with multiple counts of domestic violence.
Beyond Guice, STAR said much of what they read in USA Today’s account reflects their own experience in helping students trying to navigate sexual misconduct reporting at LSU.
The organization finds LSU reluctant to hold perpetrators of sexual assault responsible when alcohol is involved in the incident. Victims are also sometimes asked to rearrange their lives and class schedule to avoid their alleged attackers, even if the university concludes that an assault took place. STAR said the school has also failed to address persistent complaints from students that the reporting process, called Title IX, doesn’t always work as intended, Hebert said in a written statement.
That was Caroline Schroeder’s experience when she and another woman reported a fraternity member who had sexually assaulted both of them in separate incidents on the same night. The man was eventually suspended from school, but only after a six-month appeal process was exhausted.
Schroeder, who has graduated from LSU and now lives overseas, said LSU’s Title IX staff also tried to talk the two women out of pursuing their complaints more against him.
“I’d like them to stop discouraging people from reporting,” she told the Illuminator in an interview this week.“It’s not their job to discourage me from taking this further.”
Schroeder also participated in the USA Today investigation.
Title IX staff also weren’t properly informed about what accommodations she and the woman were entitled to as victims, Schroeder said. For example, the perpetrator showed up in a class of the other woman, even though LSU was supposed to make sure the accused and accusers didn’t have to spend time together, Schroeder said.
After that situation was resolved, there was another incident where the second woman saw the frat member again at a football game, even though university officials had told her he wasn’t allowed on campus. LSU then told her that the school had delayed his sentence, meaning he could be in the stadium and elsewhere.
“They would say ‘You don’t have a right to do this’ or ‘You don’t have a right to do that.’ I knew that was a lie because I know what I have a right to do,” Schroeder said. She has studied the federal and state guidelines for sexual misconduct reporting carefully.
Following the USA Today investigation, LSU announced it would hire the law firm Husch Blackwell to review LSU’s policies around sexual misconduct and to go over old complaints to see how they were handled. The Kansas City-based law firm doesn’t have any offices in Louisiana, a move that was intentional on the part of LSU, said Ernie Ballard, the university’s spokesman.
“Between our campuses, medical schools, foundations, etc., we have a lot of existing relationships with law firms, particularly in Louisiana. We wanted a firm that we did not have a previous relationship with so there would be no question of their objectivity as they review how our Title IX function is performing,” Ballard wrote in an email.
Outside of the law firm investigation announcement, LSU officials declined to comment Tuesday on the specifics of STAR or Schroeder’s statements.
Husch Blackwell was also hired by the University of Texas in Austin last year to handle its sexual misconduct scandal involving faculty and student relationships.
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