Penn State

Barron: Universities face ‘very challenging environment’ when handling sexual assault reports

Penn State President Eric Barron is interviewed at the Centre Daily Times, Thursday, May 15, 2014.
Penn State President Eric Barron is interviewed at the Centre Daily Times, Thursday, May 15, 2014. CDT photo

Penn State President Eric Barron sees a problem with the balancing act universities face when it comes to handling reports of sexual assault.

University officials investigate such allegations and dole out serious punishments when appropriate. But they also have a duty to protect the privacy of victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Barron saw the concepts clash at Florida State when star quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. Although Winston wasn’t charged in the case, it drew the national media spotlight for weeks.

“It’s a very challenging environment for a university to be in, to try to manage this investigative piece and this (privacy) piece simultaneously,” Barron said in an exclusive interview with the Centre Daily Times.

“The proof of how difficult it is to manage is that 55 universities are being investigated for the exact same thing,” said Barron, whose first day as president at Penn State was May 12.

Barron was referring to a list released earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Education that identified 55 universities and colleges that are under review for possible violations of federal laws regarding sexual violence and harassment complaints.

Penn State is on that list. And so is Florida State, where Barron had been president since 2010.

The Department of Education told the Centre Daily Times in January that its Office of Civil Rights was investigating Penn State to determine whether it complied with Title IX, a law that protects people from sex discrimination, by responding “immediately and appropriately” to complaints.

What caught the department’s attention at Penn State was the increase in the number of sex offenses reported to campus authorities. Reports surged after the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal hit in 2011.

But Penn State isn’t alone, Barron noted.

“The Ivys are on the list, the publics are on the list, the privates are on the list,” Barron said. “They’re all on the list. It’s because, first of all, a lot of them (sexual assault cases) end up to be ‘he said and she said.’ In the legal system, there has to be a preponderance of evidence and a convincing case. The bar is much lower on the university side.”

‘Consequences are great’

At some institutions, honor courts — university panels that could include individuals who lack training — are asked to make punitive rulings, Barron said. He noted that sometimes those decisions have severe consequences.

“They (students) can be suspended because of a group of people not necessarily trained to evaluate these things is going to say, ‘I believe him over her, or I believe her over him,’ ” he said. “And that’s sufficient to cause a suspension or removal from the university.”

Barron predicted that universities will begin advising students who are involved in the process to hire an attorney.

“My bet is what we’ll see is every student going forward in the process will have a lawyer, because the consequences are great,” he said. “The consequences are great for the institution and the consequences are great for the individual.”

And, at least at Penn State, the frequency with which the university deals with such cases is on the rise.

In 2012, the university received 56 reports of on-campus sex offenses, according to Clery Act data. That’s more than double the 24 reports made in 2011 and 14 times the number reported in 2010, when just four cases were reported.

“It’s something that’s a big worry for universities, and how to manage it,” Barron said. “Unfortunately, a huge portion is related to alcohol, and how good are we at controlling alcohol?”

Barron said that a lesson learned from the Winston case is the struggle of maintaining the privacy of people who report being victims of sexual assault.

“We lost a lot of ground there,” he said. “My belief is the whole institution was harmed in the sense that, I’m willing to bet anything, that because of all that coverage that someone who goes through a horrific experience and might be connected to sports, is going to think twice about coming up to report.”

‘A potent system’

Barron was critical of a New York Times investigation in April that reported that Tallahassee, Fla., police and Florida State officials did little or nothing to investigate the allegations against Winston.

“You shouldn’t go after a story knowing the headline and conclusion before you start talking to people,” Barron said when asked about the report.

He described a “deliberate process” at Florida State, focused on protecting the privacy of victims. Trained advocates provide assistance to alleged victims and help guide them through the reporting process, but specific allegations are shielded from others at the university. That would include top administrators, including Barron, he said.

“I view that as a potent system,” Barron said. “It is also behind a wall. One interpretation of that wall is ‘what are you hiding?’ The other interpretation is behind that wall are professionals who have their sole purpose to assist that individual who they believe ... was a victim.”

Barron said he would meet with new Penn State football coach James Franklin concerning rape allegations against football players at Vanderbilt University, where Franklin coached before being hired this year to guide the Nittany Lions.

“What we do know is we have 55 universities and a lot more that are sitting out there ... struggling to figure out how to manage a problem that all of us can’t stand,” Barron said. “The notion of sexual assault is unacceptable.”