No arrests resulted from a reported sexual assault at the home of three Husker football players earlier this month, but the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is conducting its own investigation.
Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, U.S. colleges and universities are responsible for investigating sexual assault claims made by anyone in the university community -- even if those allegations took place at an off-campus location or have not been formally reported to the university.
Susan Foster, UNL’s Title IX coordinator, said even if no criminal charges are filed, the university is required by federal law to investigate whether or not the UNL student code of conduct has been violated.
That requires a lower burden of proof than criminal prosecutors must meet to win a conviction in the courts -- the “greater weight of the evidence” rather than “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
So while Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly said in a news conference Wednesday morning that his office did not feel it had enough evidence to file charges, UNL investigators only must prove “it is more likely than not” a violation has occurred.
“The evidence is weighed and if the greater weight of the evidence leans toward a violation, then our office can recommend a sanction, or multiple sanctions, depending on the situation,” Foster said.
UNL’s investigation takes place independently of any criminal investigation that has occurred, and on Wednesday, Lincoln Police Chief Jim Peschong said the department had not worked with the university in any way on the investigation.
Foster, who did not specifically discuss the alleged sexual assault at the home of three Husker football players on Nov. 15, said there are agreements in place between the UNL Office of Equity and Compliance, which investigates Title IX violations, and law enforcement agencies, including LPD, the UNL Police Department and Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office.
“If somebody comes to us directly to file a complaint, they are informed of their right to file a criminal complaint as well,” Foster said, adding students who file criminal complaints are also informed of their right to file a complaint with the university.
“One is reporting a crime; the other is reporting a violation of university policy," she said.
Once UNL’s Title IX office learns of a reported sexual assault against someone in the university community, a team of four investigators -- including one former prosecutor -- typically must begin an investigation within 10 days to comply with federal guidelines, Foster said.
Interviews are conducted with the student who files the complaint, as well as the person accused of a sexual assault, and witnesses who may be able to provide an account of what occurred, Foster said.
Evidence in the form of documents, social media interactions, cellphone records, photos and more, is also collected by Foster’s office independent of the police investigation.
“It looks a lot like what you think an investigation would look like,” Foster said. “We make sure each person -- the complainant and respondent -- are provided equal opportunity to provide information.”
UNL cannot compel evidence from students. Both the complainant and the respondent have the option on whether or not to provide evidence and statements to the Title IX office, or at what level they choose to participate in the investigation.
Kelly said Wednesday that UNL had not requested any evidence gathered by police investigators.
“I’ve had some conversations with them, but I haven’t given them any information up to this point,” Kelly said.
You have free articles remaining.
Investigations can last up to 60 days, and once all the evidence is gathered and weighed, the Title IX team informs both the accuser and the accused of its findings and recommended disciplinary actions.
A letter with the findings is sent to a separate office -- Student Affairs, Academic Affairs or Human Resources -- where the recommended sanctions are enforced or an appeal hearing is held.
Student-athletes are treated the same as regular students at UNL, although a four-member Student Athlete Conduct Committee can enhance any punishment for those individuals.
The Title IX investigation process was refocused after an April 2011 “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education reminding universities that they were required to respond to reports of sexual violence, Foster said.
It is also designed to remove any perceived or actual bias that occurs in punishing students -- specifically student-athletes -- which has on occasion plagued the Nebraska athletic department.
A domestic dispute between a Husker quarterback and a star volleyball player in 2002 illustrated the issue of allowing coaches alone to discipline student-athletes.
After Lincoln Police responded to reports of a fight at Jammal Lord’s apartment involving setter Greichely Cepero, the two athletes were both ticketed by police for disturbing the peace, and Cepero was charged with failing to obey a policy officer.
NU volleyball coach John Cook suspended Cepero for the next match, and the national player of the year held a tearful news conference the next day in which she apologized to her teammates, coaches and Husker fans.
Lord, who was taken to a Lincoln detox center following the disturbance, was the starting quarterback in Nebraska's game against Oklahoma State the next week.
In a news conference, football coach Frank Solich said Lord was “put under some guidelines” imposed by the team, and said the disciplinary system in place “would not kick a young man out of playing or a starting role” for his run-in with the law.
The difference in discipline meted out by the Husker coaches drew a national reaction and intensified the focus on how universities handle punishing players for off-the-field offenses.
Years before, Coach Tom Osborne reinstated Lawrence Phillips late in the season only weeks after the running back violently assaulted an ex-girlfriend, a decision which drew ire in the national news media, which measured Osborne’s decision against the undefeated season the Huskers were mounting.
A few years after Solich let his starting quarterback continue leading the squad, Bo Pelini suspended lineman Andy Christensen after he was charged with first-degree sexual assault only to reinstate him after a jury acquittal.
Following Wednesday's announcement that no charges would be filed in the reported sexual assault, the Nebraska athletic department issued a statement saying “We are aware of this morning’s announcement by the Lincoln Police Department and the Lancaster County Attorney. There is no change in the status of any student-athletes. We will continue to follow university policies.”
No suspect has been publicly named in the reported sexual assault on Nov. 15. Police have said there was a gathering of several people at the players' home.
As more focus is put on sexual assaults involving students -- the National Sexual Violence Resource Center estimates 1 in 5 women are the victims of sexual assault while in college -- Foster says the Title IX investigators at UNL are committed to protecting students.
“We are working very, very hard to ensure this process is fair, equitable and concise,” she said.