The academic path of sought-after college basketball player Brandon Austin is riddled with recruitment, scholarships, and sexual assault allegations. His story sheds light on how colleges can — and do — unknowingly recruit students who could be a danger to female students. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The University of Oregon reached an $800,000 settlement last week with a student who says she was gang-raped by three members of the school’s basketball team.
According to the plaintiff, during a night of drinking she entered a bathroom at a party with three members of the team. She says at that point, she was gang-raped in the bathroom and then later in a bedroom; the accused admitted to group sexual activity but insisted that it was consensual.
The story is disturbing enough, but there’s a twist.
The student filed a suit against the university in January for violation of her Title IX rights, for having recruited to its basketball team a student who had been charged with sexual assault at another college — who then, along with two of his teammates, she says, went on to rape her at the University of Oregon.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender in any federally funded education program.
“Deliberate indifference” to student safety
Brandon Austin, the student in question, was charged with sexual assault at Providence College in 2013, where he was also a member of the school’s basketball team. As in the University of Oregon incident, the alleged sexual assault at Providence College also involved Austin and another team member. Criminal charges were not brought against him, though he was suspended from playing on Providence’s basketball team after the school learned of the allegations. He withdrew from the university after the completion of the school’s adjudicatory process in early 2014, but was then recruited for the University of Oregon’s team. (The other man accused at Providence College, Rodney Bullock, chose to stay at the college and continues to play for its basketball team.)
Providence College tells Yahoo Health that Austin was suspended from the basketball team when the allegations were first raised. However, the school would not comment on the outcome of its adjudicatory process and what information was relayed to the University of Oregon regarding the findings.
Brandon Austin (Photo: Providence College Athletic Media Relations)
Once at Oregon, Austin reportedly quickly acclimated to life in a new part of the country and alongside a new team.
According to the police report, the female student was at an off-campus house party when she was approached by four men. One of the group left, but the other three remained. They then complimented her and led her down a hall and into a bathroom. She told a friend that she had to hold her shorts on, because Austin and one of the other men kept trying to pull them down, and that Austin took her cellphone from her when she attempted to use it to call a friend.
“Brandon was the most physical” and “the most forceful,” the University of Oregon student told officers during the rape investigation.
In her suit, the student — called Jane Doe for privacy purposes — accused University of Oregon head coach Dana Altman of showing “deliberate indifference” to student safety by recruiting a student who had previously faced sexual assault allegations and then went on to commit a gang-rape at his new school.
In June 2014, Austin and teammates Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson were found responsible by the university for the gang rape of Jane Doe in March of that year. All three men, including Austin, were allowed to continue to play for the University of Oregon’s basketball team — including participation in the NCAA March Madness games — while the investigation was continuing. It wasn’t until Jane Doe’s allegations were made public that the men left the school, and even then — as with Austin at Providence College — they were not expelled.
Rather, they were banned from the university for 10 years and allowed to withdraw. All three have since been recruited for other college basketball teams, seemingly re-creating a tragic, dangerous pattern.
Brandon Austin was recruited by Northwest Florida State College, where he was awarded a basketball scholarship. Artis and Dotson continue to play for Division I teams; Artis now attends and plays basketball for the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and Dotson now attends and plays basketball for the University of Houston.
Austin recently told CBS Sports that having to play for a smaller school with less name recognition like Northwest Florida State “humbled me. I know I’m better than that level. It’s just been really a humbling experience.”
“I’m a changed person. I went through some stuff that got me stronger and got me smarter,” Austin said.
Are schools conducting investigations required by Title IX?
“I think the issue that we hear about most frequently from young women across the country is that too often, schools are not conducting investigations as is required by Title IX,” says Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and an expert on Title IX cases. “The process is not transparent to everybody, and there is not enough action when people are found responsible for sexual assault. Title IX requires allegations to be investigated thoroughly and in a timely manner. There needs to be a fair process in place so that it’s clear — so that [students] know what to do to report an assault, how to get services [such as counseling and environmental accommodations regarding housing and class enrollment] — and that it’s clear that any form of retaliation is prohibited.”
The University of Oregon originally had filed a countersuit against Jane Doe in February of this year, claiming that her allegations would deter other victims from coming forward, but eventually dropped the suit after being met with intense backlash on campus and in national media.
A complicated situation
When it comes to instances like what happened at the University of Oregon and Providence College with Brandon Austin, however, the situation is complicated. While Providence College will not comment on the outcome of its Title IX adjudicatory process, Austin withdrew from the school at its conclusion.
“A school often embraces the outcome of a student voluntarily withdrawing, the same way a prosecutor embraces a plea bargain,” Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) tells Yahoo Health. “It ends everything and takes the responsibility off their plate. Schools breathe a sigh of relief if the accused agrees to withdraw voluntarily.”
Another problem, explains Berkowitz, is that because an internal Title IX investigation is completely independent from any kind of criminal investigation, it also cannot implement the kind of criminal sentencing that results in prison time, which Berkowitz says is “the only way to get perpetrators off the streets and to protect future victims.”
Furthermore, he notes, “if a student withdraws before being found responsible [for sexual assault] — that’s a complicated area of law regarding student privacy,” particularly in terms of what one university may communicate to another about that student and any allegations raised against him.
“One challenge in all of this is that even if [allegations and findings of responsibility] are communicated from one school to another, unless there is a criminal charge and actual jail time — even if there is a finding of responsibility by a university, it just moved the problem somewhere else. That person is still either in the school community or in a nearby community. You don’t have anything to stop them.”
If a student is found responsible for sexual assault on a campus, that school is obligated under Title IX to make sure that steps are taken to ensure the safety of the school community, such as providing additional supervision and counseling for the perpetrator, explains Chaudhry.
“They do have an obligation to protect and prevent harassment,” she says, especially when the school knows of a student’s past.
Chaudhry says the National Women’s Law Center has been involved with a number of Title IX cases at the high school level in which the courts have held schools responsible when they know about a person’s previous record in a way that suggests that the school should increase supervision of that student and then fail to do so.
She notes that while it is important to “make sure that the process is fair to everybody — you want to make sure that students aren’t being unfairly branded if you don’t know the full facts,” it is always important for schools to be fair and thoughtful in their investigations and subsequent actions. “They do have an obligation to protect and prevent harassment” on their campuses — which is why making sure that additional supervision for offenders can be so critical.
No standardized system
Chaudhry also explains that when it comes to Title IX investigations, there is no standardized system of disciplinary measures that can be invoked by universities across the board. Just as in instances of cheating and of nonsexual assault, each school typically has its own honor code and subsequent sanctions for different kinds of offenses.
“The worst thing a school can do is expel a student,” adds Berkowitz, in which case “a criminal case, if successful, ends in prison time most of the time” for those found responsible for sexual assault.
The differences in the kinds of sanctions that can be imposed by a university and the criminal justice system are just one of the many differences that exist between an internal, university-led Title IX investigation and a criminal investigation.
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“It’s an entirely separate process,” explains Chaudhry. “Students can file charges with the police in addition to Title IX. Title IX applies to school and educational programs — that’s why it’s so important, why they are required to conduct their own investigations. It’s a school’s job to prevent sexual harassment. Even if there is a parallel [criminal] complaint going on, [that investigation] does not reflect the environment on campus. … The school has an obligation for keeping students safe. …. A police investigation won’t touch on accommodations for students [who are the victims of sexual assault], for example, if they are sharing a class or a dorm with [the accused]. The school’s process can handle the educational environment — as it should.”
She notes that often, and wrongly, however, a school may not investigate sexual assault allegations if it hears that a student has filed criminal charges, “because they think the police are handling it. But they have an independent obligation to investigate and address a hostile educational environment created when these situations happen and protect students at large.”
“It was a pretty egregious case,” concludes Berkowitz of the incident at the University of Oregon. “I am glad to see that the student who was harmed there got a settlement, and hopefully that will be a pretty big warning that will stop other schools from making the same mistake. It will make schools more cautious” about both the precautions taken when students with a history of assault are on campus and about “protecting the privacy of victims.”
Requests for comment from the University of Oregon and Northwest Florida State College were not returned.
CLARIFICATION: This article was amended on Aug. 13 to provide more information on the circumstances surrounding Brandon Austin’s withdrawal from Providence College.
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