Rebuffed by LSU officials, Louisiana lawmakers look toward solutions

Kenny Jacoby
The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Thursday, April 8, 2021.

BATON ROUGE — Women state lawmakers who have been holding hearings into Louisiana State University’s years-long, systemic mishandling of sexual misconduct and violence complaints came to a sobering conclusion during their third such hearing Thursday.

LSU officials are done talking.

As a result, the legislators shifted their focus from accountability for officials who contributed to the scandal to at least 12 newly introduced bills that would address problems at the heart of it.

“We’re limited, but we feel the burden,” said Sen. Beth Mizell, vice chair of the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children, the group that has been hosting the hearings. “We don't want to just slap you on the hand — we want this done. And I think maybe the greatest help we can give you is by watchful oversight and engagement.”

President Pro Tempore Beth Mizell  during the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Thursday, April 8, 2021.

None of the 10 current and former LSU leaders from whom committee members had demanded testimony – including several who played key roles in the scandal — showed up on Thursday. That includes football coach Ed Orgeron, athletic director Scott Woodward, executive deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry, senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar and members of the Board of Supervisors. 

Ausberry and Segar, who were found to have failed to report sexual misconduct and dating violence allegations against athletes to the Title IX office, are the only employees LSU has disciplined in light of the report last month by law firm Husch Blackwell, which detailed widespread failures to adequately respond to Title IX complaints. Both employees received brief unpaid suspensions and have since returned to work. 

LSU hired Husch Blackwell in November to review its handling of Title IX complaints in response to investigative reporting by USA TODAY

Some of the employees invited to attend had indicated earlier this week or last that they would testify, but any such plans were shut down Wednesday, when LSU general counsel Winston DeCuir Jr. blocked them from doing so in a letter to the committee.

DeCuir wrote that it would “not be prudent” of the employees to do so because several were named as defendants in federal Title IX and civil RICO lawsuits against the school by Sharon Lewis, LSU’s associate athletic director for football recruiting. Lewis alleged that her supervisors — including Woodward, Ausberry and Segar — retaliated against her for years after she reported sexual harassment allegations by student workers against former LSU football coach Les Miles.

Winston DeCuir Jr. - LSU Vice President of Legal Affairs and General Counsel speaking at the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Thursday, April 8, 2021.

Woodward, Orgeron, Ausberry and Segar all declined to attend prior to the news of the lawsuit, instead issuing written statements that the lawmakers criticized as vague and unsatisfactory. 

DeCuir was the only LSU employee who testified at Thursday’s hearing. Lawmakers again pushed LSU to fire the employees who failed to report complaints to the Title IX office. But DeCuir continued to defend the short suspensions for Ausberry and Segar, saying they didn’t know to report complaints because they hadn’t been properly trained. Students and lawmakers alike have decried those punishments as too lenient

With no other LSU officials left to directly question, the lawmakers turned their attention toward the recently introduced bills, including one by Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman that would require termination for university officials who don’t report complaints or make false reports. Another bill by Mizell calls for termination or other discipline for such officials.

Both Freeman’s and Mizell’s bills clarify mandatory reporting requirements for all employees across Louisiana colleges. Additionally, both bills would require Title IX coordinators and chancellors to submit quarterly reports that would detail the number of Title IX reports received, the number that were investigated and not investigated, and the outcomes of the investigations, including disciplinary actions taken against students found responsible. 

State Representative Aimee Adatto Freeman speaking at the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Thursday, April 8, 2021.

A USA TODAY investigation last month found that LSU associate dean Jonathan Sanders regularly gave rapists, stalkers and abusers the lightest possible punishments that allowed them to remain on campus and continue their coursework without interruption. After USA TODAY’s report, Sanders was temporarily barred from participating in disciplinary cases pending a human resources investigation. 

Freeman’s bill would also grant victims who report sexual assaults to their schools the right to obtain copies of their reports. This provision is in response to LSU denying former student Samantha Brennan’s request for a copy of the report she filed in July 2016 against running back Derrius Guice for taking a nude photograph of her without her permission and sharing it with others on the football team. LSU never investigated her complaint.

Brennan and USA TODAY sued LSU for a copy of her report last year. After a five-month court battle, LSU finally provided a complete, unredacted copy last month.

Another bill by Sen. Regina Barrow would create within the legislature an oversight panel that would monitor “the effectiveness and quality of” universities’ responses to gendered violence and “ensure proper and efficient actions in the reporting, investigation, adjudication, and prevention” of such incidents. Barrow said the panel, which would meet at least four times a year, would serve as an advisory agency to the schools, the legislature and the governor. 

In her testimony, Morgan Lamandre, the legal director for STAR, Baton Rouge’s rape crisis center, recommended having a legislative auditor conduct an additional review into Title IX cases at LSU — specifically those not discussed in the Husch Blackwell report, which centered on the cases of students who shared their stories with USA TODAY. The auditor, Lamandre said, should also examine the handling of cases by other Louisiana universities.

Barrow and Rep. Stephanie Hilferty expressed support for Lamandre’s suggestion.

State Representative
Stephanie Hilferty speaking at the Senate Select Committee on Women and Children at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, LA.  Thursday, April 8, 2021.

“We can't depend on the survivors who I know are not going to come forward for all the reasons you've heard earlier, but also because some of them have tried to put this behind them,” Lamandre said. “They don't really want to have to come back and bring this back into their mind, but there are things that happened to them that still need to be addressed.”