Louisiana lawmakers want greater reckoning at LSU

Published 5:34 pm Thursday, March 18, 2021

Shameful. Heartbreaking. Sickening. Shocking the conscience.

Lawmakers used those words and more to describe their reaction to a blistering independent review of Louisiana State University’s mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints.

But the legislators went further than angry criticism after a day-long hearing that included current and former students describing their stories of sexual assault. The lawmakers — mostly women, but also a handful men in attendance — promised action, seeking a reckoning for the state’s flagship university after it ignored and dismissed student allegations of rape, domestic violence and assault.

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The House and Senate members want to see officials fired, rather than suspended. They want demonstrated change in handling of misconduct allegations. And they want all of Louisiana’s college campuses following laws they passed in recent years to combat sexual assault and harassment.

“We are committed to this, and we will not let it go,” said Sen. Regina Barrow, the Baton Rouge Democrat who leads the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children. “The culture around this issue, we will no longer tolerate it.”

Wednesday’s hearing was a strong signal from the people who control the state’s purse strings and who could make life quite difficult for LSU leaders if they choose.

LSU hired law firm Husch Blackwell to review its handling of sexual misconduct, harassment and discrimination complaints under federal Title IX laws after reporting by USA Today scrutinized the school’s handling of sexual assault cases implicating two former football players. The report that followed documented LSU’s widespread failings to adequately investigate, report and document students’ misconduct allegations.

In response to the scathing assessment, LSU interim System President Tom Galligan offered repeated apologies, created a new office to handle complaints and pledged to follow every Husch Blackwell recommendation for improvement.

“We failed those who it was our first duty to protect,” Galligan said, calling himself “ashamed.”

Galligan wasn’t in charge during the bungled responses documented in the report. But he decided the punishment that should be meted out: Two short-term suspensions, nothing more.

LSU suspended executive deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry for 30 days and senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar for 21 days, without pay. Both were ordered to undergo sexual violence training.

That’s where lawmakers grew angry.

They said Galligan’s refusal to fire people implicated in the mishandling of students’ allegations was insufficient. They accused the university of trying to protect certain athletes at the expense of other students. They said weak disciplinary decisions would give survivors of sexual assault no confidence in the university. And they said it appeared more people deserved punishment.

Galligan said university policies for handling complaints were unclear and employees didn’t receive proper training for roles they held, so firings seemed unfair.

Sen. Beth Mizell, the Republican who holds the Senate’s second-ranking position, said laws and regulations detail how to handle allegations of assault and harassment — and she suggested common sense could fill in the blanks.

“I’ve never had a job anywhere that would not have fired me for lying or for not protecting the people I was supposed to protect,” she said.

Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, a New Orleans Democrat whose daughter is an LSU student, said: “It’s like an organized crime ring that was being run.”

Several lawmakers particularly bristled because recent laws they passed targeting misconduct seem to have been ignored.

A 2015 law required public colleges to strike agreements with local law enforcement for investigating sexually-oriented offenses against students. It also required a statewide policy for handling student sexual assault allegations and for bolstering prevention efforts.

Galligan said law enforcement agencies didn’t sign an agreement with LSU, Southern University and Baton Rouge Community College, though one was drafted. And though the Board of Regents established the policy required, lawmakers said it didn’t appear to be followed at LSU.

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s public colleges are not meeting requirements of a 2018 law aimed at combatting sexual harassment, with thousands of campus workers not taking a mandatory yearly anti-harassment course.

“People do not believe we are serious,” said Senate Republican leader Sharon Hewitt. “I think that we need to redouble our efforts.”

Morgan Lamandre, legal director for the Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response organization, known as STAR, urged lawmakers to maintain strength of purpose if they intend to toughen policies and actions against sexual assault.

She also warned: “This is the tip of the iceberg … If this is making you sick, there is a lot more out there.”

Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.