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State senators took turns blasting LSU for its failures on sexual assaults at lengthy hearing

Senate committee Chairperson Regina Barrow questioning LSU general counsel Winston DeCuir at Thursday’s hearing on the school’s handling of sexual assaults. (Photo by: Kathleen Peppo/LSU Manship School News Service)

By Kathleen Peppo

LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE, La. — State senators on Thursday took turns blasting LSU for its failures on sexual assaults at a hearing at which not a single LSU official listed on the agenda was in attendance.

The Senate Select Committee on Women and Children had called for the testimony of nine LSU employees and one attorney at Taylor Porter, a Baton Rouge law firm that represents LSU, on how it has handled sexual assault complaints involving football players and others.

But the LSU officials, including Head Football Coach Ed Orgeron and Athletic Director Scott Woodward, opted to send written testimony instead, and only Winston DeCuir, LSU’s vice president for legal affairs and general counsel, showed up to testify in person.

DeCuir said he had advised the others not to attend after a former LSU football employee said she was bringing a $50 million suit against the university. The suit, filed Thursday, alleges that Les Miles, Orgeron’s predecessor as head coach, had sexually harassed her and that her superiors and coworkers retaliated against her after she reported it.

“Based on the announcement of threatened litigation, I have to be cautious in that circumstance,” DeCuir said. “The only prudent step was to caution the university they should not be giving testimony under oath on these issues with a threatened lawsuit coming down the pipe.”

But Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, was having none of that.

“Heads need to roll, and we’re not going to just believe people’s written statements,” Peterson said. She said the scandal “warrants dismissal of some of the players.”

Allegations of rape and sexual violence by former LSU football star Derrius Guice and others have surfaced, sparking criticism that LSU has ignored or mishandled reports of sexual misconduct.

Peterson and other lawmakers have been upset that LSU has only suspended two athletic employees temporarily in response to the revelations. Meanwhile, former LSU president F. King Alexander has had to resign from Oregon State University and the University of Kansas has fired Miles as its football coach over other harassment allegations from his days at LSU.

“Common sense tells us that there was a coverup,” Peterson said. “It’s wrong.”

“To have these elongated discussions where survivors, in my opinion, are being placated and pandered to, it’s annoying,” said Peterson, who added that she herself is a survivor of sexual trauma.

Peterson said that, by failing to do more to hold people accountable, LSU is discouraging survivors of sexual trauma from coming forward because “they never see consequences when they do stand up.”

DeCuir, the LSU general counsel, stated that he did not know which university officials had initially planned to attend the hearing because he was on vacation.

“On my six-hour drive home, I got word via cell phone, Tuesday afternoon, that there was going to be a press conference Wednesday,” DeCuir said. “So, from Friday to Tuesday, I was chasing kids across the beach, I’m sorry.”

Rep. Aimee Freeman, D-New Orleans, noted that even before the announcement of the sexual harassment lawsuit by the former football employee, Sharon Lewis, several of the LSU officials who had been called to testify were planning to send written statements instead, an option that the Legislature allows.

Orgeron was one of them. Another was Verge Ausberry, one of the two athletic officials who had been suspended.

Freeman has proposed a bill that would require LSU employees to report any sexual misconduct they are made aware of or be terminated. Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that he was support the bill.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, asked how many taxpayer dollars are going toward the assault investigations that could have gone toward education.

DeCuir said the university has incurred extra costs to hire a law firm, Husch Blackwell, which conducted a review of its handling of the assault claims. It also faces costs from litigation and special audits.

DeCuir could not answer whether Ausberry or the other athletic official who was on unpaid suspension kept doing LSU work. He also did not say much about LSU’s search to fill a new vice president in charge of civil rights and Title IX activities who will work independently of his office.

Title IX is the federal law that requires universities to investigate complaints of sexual assaults involving students and university personnel.

But, DeCuir said, “Having the Title IX Office outside the purview of the general counsel’s office means they’ll have a way to do this with individual cases on a much smaller scale without any fear the lawyers above them are going to try to protect the university,” DeCuir said.

LSU is retaining an outside firm to search for the new vice president.

But Sen. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Jefferson, said, “It seems like keeping things at a high level with a small group of people has led us to where we are with this, and, going forward, I want LSU students to feel empowered in the processes of their school, as they should.”

“Given the sensitive nature of this and everything surrounding this, I would encourage you guys to look at not just one student member but maybe a few student members to be a part of that search committee and also to allow the LSU student body access to the process of that search committee,” said Hilferty.

Rep. Freeman seconded Hilferty’s suggestion, adding that she thinks LSU Student Government and victim advocacy groups like STAR (which stands for sexual trauma awareness and response) should be included.

“I feel strongly that students need to be included in that conversation because their confidence in their school is very low right now,” said Freeman.

DeCuir responded: “We can definitely do that; that’s not a problem.”

DeCuir also noted that “when we disclose something like this Husch-Blackwell report, we actually cause more distrust than existed before because we’re disclosing stuff folks weren’t aware about publicly.”

“When we dig into something like this, we knew it was going to cause additional distrust, and then once we get to the bottom, we have to take our time and start to build it back up.”

Wednesday night, however, LSU’s official Instagram account posted a photograph of Tiger Stadium lit up in teal to “honor Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” receiving almost unanimous backlash from students in the comments section that the post was tone-deaf.

Freeman said the distrust is real.

“I am hearing from lots of students, former students, people who have had interactions with these people who cannot testify who are afraid to come sit at that table because they don’t trust the institution that they used to be part of as an alum or they’re part of,” she said.

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