Florida State Settlement A Victory In Helping Women To Be Heard

Last year at this time, "The Hunting Ground" director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering were in Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, where their campus sexual assault documentary featuring Erica Kinsman made its debut. They're back at this year's festival, where on Monday they learned of the $950,000 Florida State University will pay to settle a suit filed by Kinsman.

"It's a real victory," Dick said from Sundance, "and not just for her but for the FSU community and the whole country."

This settlement isn't about the merits of Kinsman's initial allegation that she was raped by FSU quarterback Jameis Winston at his off-campus apartment in 2012. No charges were ever filed against Winston, who just wrapped a successful rookie season as the quarterback of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Kinsman's suit was instead about the university's process once it learned of her allegation, and whether she was treated fairly by the school as Winston was lauded as a key part of its football program.

Kinsman later dropped out of FSU, while Winston played two years of football there and won the Heisman Trophy.

What seems clear to many was that Kinsman, like many women who make a claim of rape, endured an uphill battle just to be heard. That difficulty can be exacerbated when a claim is made against a member of a sports team, as the fans rally around a player like it's fourth and goal in the conference championship.

"Everyone who comes forward knows it's going to be difficult," Dick said. "They know they are going to be blamed. But they want things to change."

One voice can be easy to ignore, and the larger point of "The Hunting Ground" is that universities and society have sometimes chosen to silence young male and female victims in the name of branding and harmony. In the past, it may even have been easy. But institutions don't like to part with money, much less nearly $1 million. It's a large enough settlement to make universities think in the future about installing and following better protocols.

Several investigative pieces have questioned the way the Tallahassee Police Department and FSU's own internal investigations proceeded. In May 2014, the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights released a list of 55 schools being investigated for violating student's rights under Title IX -- that based on gender, these women who come forward after being assaulted were denied equal access to education or were in some other way not treated equally. Since then, many more schools have been added to the list; it now stands at 199.

An important part of Monday's settlement is that it allows Kinsman's Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights to continue.

Florida State was firm that it did nothing wrong in Kinsman's case. It had asked the court to dismiss Kinsman's suit, but the court did not and a trial was set for July. The settlement means many of the facts in this case probably won't come out.

FSU, which didn't have to admit liability in the settlement, issued a news release in which FSU president John Thrasher expressed regret the case won't play out in open court because of the expense.

"We have an obligation to our students, their parents and Florida taxpayers to deal with this case, as we do all litigation, in a financially responsible manner," Thrasher said. "With all the economic demands we face, at some point it doesn't make sense to continue even though we are convinced we would have prevailed."

That certainty was difficult for Dick to believe. He and Kinsman's attorney John Clune point to a second woman, mentioned in Kinsman's civil suit and included a New York Times investigation, who sought counseling after a sexual encounter with Winston, a point that could have been explored as part of a larger trial looking into FSU's overall process.

"It's somewhat disingenuous," he said. "We know already the extent FSU went to cover up this assault and we believe there was more to come out, and we believe that's why they settled it."

The issues at hand were not the relative guilt or innocence of Winston, or Kinsman's truthfulness, but rather the allegation that FSU didn't follow the proper protocol once it became aware of Kinsman's statement to police. The settlement doesn't speak to Winston's actions or vindicate Kinsman on the allegations of rape. But there is a victory in what the settlement might mean for young women who come forward in the future with a difficult charge, and the fairness of the treatment they can expect to receive from their school.

FSU admitted that the athletic department was made aware of the allegations in January 2013 and decided not to forward the case to FSU's Title IX administrator or the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities. In explaining all the things the school has improved around the issue, FSU cites training programs to make school employees aware of the way allegations of rape and assault have to be reported up the chain.

"The Title IX Coordinator and Sexual Assault Prevention Task Group have instituted comprehensive changes across campus, not only in Athletics," FSU spokesperson Dennis Schnittker said in an email. "Training for faculty and staff about reporting obligations is a significant part of that program."

That's an excellent step. Removing football coach Jimbo Fisher entirely from decision-making chain involving football players would be another.

There's really no place for a conflict of interest in these cases, considering there is conflict enough in coming forward with an allegation. Despite studies that show the amount of false reporting in cases of sexual assault is about the same as for other crimes, Kinsman's case shows why it is so difficult to come forward.

And that's where this is a victory. Despite all the scorn she has endured, with this historic settlement, Kinsman made it a little harder to dismiss a woman who might say she has been raped.

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