(Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)
On April 19, about a month after LSU unveiled its new website on sexual assault and dating violence, Morgan Lamandre told the university about a problem with it. The guidance on how to seek a restraining order on the new website was wrong, she said.
“A restraining order is a court order that prohibits someone from abusing, threatening, harassing or stalking you,” the new LSU website stated in mid-April. “Where you must file your request depends on the serving jurisdiction and relationship (e.g. Baton Rouge City Court vs. 19th JDC Family Court).”
Lamandre said the guidance was misleading. The type of restraining order a person would need after being threatened by an abusive intimate partner, rapist or stalker could not be provided by Baton Rouge City Court. That person would need to go to the 19th Judicial District Court or East Baton Rouge Family Court to get that type of order in Baton Rouge.
Lamandre would know. She’s the legal director of the Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response (STAR) organization. She helps survivors of sexual assault file for protective orders as part of her job.
“Baton Rouge City Court does not provide the type of restraining order that would be needed for survivors of domestic or dating abuse, stalking or sexual assault,” Lamandre wrote in an email to Jane Cassidy, the interim vice president of LSU’s Title IX office, which handles allegations of sexual assault and abuse.
“If a survivor is sent there, it is likely they could be led to file a generic 3601 injunction, which is no different than one neighbors may file against each other to prevent loud noises,” Lamandre wrote to Cassidy. “Those types of restraining orders do not go to the Louisiana protective order registry, nor do they go on the uniform abuse prevention order form. This form is critical for survivors because it is recognized by law enforcement officers, which makes the order easier to enforce.”
Still, LSU kept the problematic restraining order guidance on its website for nearly six weeks after Lamandre’s warning. The university took the language down in late May or early June after a reporter started asking LSU to respond to complaints from women in the Louisiana Legislature about it. About two weeks after reaching out to LSU, Lamandre had forwarded a copy of her email outlining her concerns about the restraining order language to the Legislative Women’s Caucus.
“We have let LSU know it isn’t correct,” said Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, before the website changed. “You would think fixing the website would be a high priority.”
LSU’s slow response is about more than just the website, according to advocates, women lawmakers and LSU students. It raises questions about whether the university is capable of overhauling its approach to sexual assault and domestic violence in the wake of one of the university’s biggest scandals.
A USA TODAY investigation last fall revealed LSU had mishandled sexual assault and domestic violence cases for years. LSU has promised to fix some of the university’s systemic problems, including the chronic underfunding and understaffing of the Title IX office that handles these sensitive issues.
But LSU is still overly sensitive to criticism and reluctant to seek input from outside sources or students about its sexual misconduct and domestic violence policies, according to state legislators, students and advocates interviewed for this story. They said the weeks-long delay on fixing the restraining order language is indicative of a larger problem — in which those who want to help LSU fix its problems are often dismissed or ignored.
“Something as simple as getting the correct guidelines on the website requires people telling [LSU administrators] that they are watching them,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton), who is the head of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. “To me — that’s kind of sad.”
Women lawmakers had met with Lamandre and a handful of LSU students at the university’s Baton Rouge campus May 1. Students and lawmakers said they had talked about LSU’s new website at that meeting — in part because the restraining order language had not been changed yet.
After the meeting, women lawmakers said they then asked LSU to fix the restraining order language — and waited for the university to make the change for almost a month. When the changes still weren’t made, State Sen. Regina Barrow, (D-Baton Rouge) involved Senate President Page Cortez (R-Lafayette) in the request.
It’s unclear whether Cortez talked to LSU officials, but LSU updated the website a few days later, in late May or early June. The update also came around the same time a reporter questioned the university about the restraining order language.
That a change to the website took so much effort alarmed Barrow.
“This is a very simple fix. I’m concerned that the school did not take the time to fix something as miniscule as that,” Barrow said in an interview in late May. “It makes me wonder about some of the things they have to do that are going to require more attention.”
On the “Seek a Restraining Order” tab of LSU’s domestic and sexual violence support resource page, LSU now advises people to contact the LSU police department, STAR or the local domestic violence assistance group IRIS for legal help with such a matter. The web page no longer mentions which jurisdictions — Baton Rouge City Court, the 19th Judicial District Court or East Baton Rouge Family Court — would handle a restraining order.
Lamandre’s employer, STAR, is happy with the new language, and sympathetic to the fact that LSU is having to make a number of changes regarding sexual assault policies at the same time. In the aftermath of its scandal, LSU and LSU Athletics hired STAR to help improve the university’s response and training on sexual assault.
“I’m pleased that they changed the website,” said Racheal Hebert, STAR’s founder and chief executive officer. “They have a lot going on at once, and they are trying to address a lot of things at once.”
But LSU still insists the old information about how to get a restraining order was not wrong. The LSU general counsel’s office didn’t find it problematic, according to university spokesman Ernie Ballard.
“While others are entitled to their opinions, the information on the site was never incorrect, but we have since clarified it to make it simpler and easier for our students to understand,” Ballard wrote in an email last week.
Lamandre isn’t the only legal expert who characterized the old restraining order language on LSU’s website as inaccurate. Ayn Stehr, the executive director of the National Association of Social Workers — Louisiana chapter, also said the original website language was misleading and possibly dangerous for survivors.
“[LSU] didn’t bother to do any research on our laws and they didn’t talk to anyone who has experience in this area,” said Stehr, an attorney who is the legal consultant for the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Protective Order Registry and a former state lobbyist for the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Stehr said Baton Rouge City Court issues restraining orders meant to handle disputes that don’t typically involve violence — like a disagreement between neighbors over where a fence should go on a property line. The city court’s temporary restraining orders and protective orders are only enforceable within the city limits of Baton Rouge. They also cost $148.50, according to the city court’s own website.
Temporary restraining orders and protective orders issued by the district and family courts are supposed to be enforceable throughout the country. They are free of charge for survivors of sexual assault and intimate partner violence. They also link directly to state laws tailored to protect victims of sexual assault, stalking and inimate partner violence. The city court does not have jurisdiction to enforce those same laws, Stehr said.
Law enforcement also has easy access to information about restraining orders and protective orders filed in district courts, Stehr said. That’s not necessarily true of such orders filed in city court — which could leave survivors more vulnerable to an attack.
“Why would anyone file in city court to be protected from an assailant? I don’t know because they couldn’t get the relief they could get right across the street for free [in the 19th Judicial District Court],” Stehr said.
Stehr said LSU would do better to consult with a local advocacy organization — or at least an attorney who has experience seeking protective orders — before putting information on its new website about services for sexual assault and domestic violence.
“Advocacy agencies want correct information in the community so people know where they can go to get assistance. Who better than an advocacy entity to develop that language?” Stehr said. “It’s a problem when you involve [LSU’s] general counsel because their job is to protect LSU from potential lawsuits.”
LSU has been told not to involve its general counsel’s office in its new approach to sexual assault and domestic violence previously.
Husch Blackwell — a law firm LSU hired to investigate LSU’s handling of sexual misconduct and domestic violence in the wake of its scandal — recommended the university move its Title IX office out from under the supervision of the school’s general counsel. The general counsel’s oversight of the Title IX office was a conflict of interest, according to the law firm.
The Title IX office is often handling cases where university faculty and staff may have behaved inappropriately and the general counsel’s main responsibility is to shield the university from liability. That made LSU’s former arrangement — in which the general counsel oversaw Title IX — untenable, according to Husch Blackwell.
Husch Blackwell also recommended in early March that LSU update its web pages about services for victims of sexual misconduct and dating violence. The law firm said LSU’s previous website made the information difficult to find and lacked clarity. LSU launched the new website rather quickly — less than month after Husch Blackwell’s recommendations went public.
Students find LSU’s new website on sexual assault and dating violence, in general, to be a big improvement over what previously existed.
“The former website was terrible,” said Angelina Cantelli, the co-president of the student advocacy group, Tigers Against Sexual Assault (TASA). “It’s definitely better than before.”
But Cantelli and other student leaders said LSU’s online information about sexual misconduct and dating violence could still be improved. Jessie Parrott is a LSU graduate student who works for “We’re Committed” — the student government’s department of sexual assault policy and advocacy. She said she’s recommended a number of changes to the new website, but her requests have been ignored.
Parrott said the main page for LSU’s sexual assault and dating violence services provides no information about “We’re Committed” — even though the program is supposed to be a resource for students who need help with sexual misconduct. The existing “We’re Committed” page on LSU’s website also has several broken links – now that LSU has updated the rest of its web content.
Parrott said she would like to see LSU provide more specific information for men who are survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. She also wants resources about how to get in contact with members of the Louisiana Legislature who write the laws surrounding these issues. Parrott also believes some of the new information on the website is still confusing and contains too much “legalese.”
“This is the flagship university of the state of Louisiana and we can’t even have a functioning website,” Parrott said in an interview.
Cantelli said she is disappointed and frustrated that LSU hasn’t been willing to incorporate feedback into the rollout of its new approach to sexual misconduct, especially when it comes from students.
“LSU avoids these things that are just so simple to do,” Cantelli said.
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