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OTL delves further into sexual violence on nation’s campuses

In a combined presentation between Outside the Lines and espnW, reporter Paula Lavigne and producer Nicole Noren today published a series of stories regarding sexual assaults on college campuses and the apparent federal law violations some schools might be guilty of for mishandling of Title IX complaints. Here, for Front Row, both Lavigne and Noren offer insight into their important work and what readers and viewers can expect to learn from their months-long reporting. Sunday’s OTL (ESPN, 9 a.m. ET) will also air the piece and have a discussion led by Bob Ley. On espnW, reporter and former NCAA basketball player Kate Fagan explores college athletic departments’ sway in investigating alleged sexual assaults by athletes. Visit ESPN MediaZone for more information.

Paula Lavigne
Paula Lavigne

This story was difficult on many levels, from the intense negotiations and battles we had with the University of Missouri over releasing public records to getting sources to agree to talk to us on camera due to the sensitive nature of this topic. The whole process took about seven months.

The topic of campus sexual assault is a vast one. And our story hits just as this issue has risen to the public consciousness through a number of events this year. In January, the White House established a task force to address campus sexual assault and just within the last few weeks, members of the U.S. House and Senate introduced bills that would stiffen the penalties for colleges that fail to take action on reports of sexual violence. The Senate bill also would prevent the athletic department from overseeing investigations of sexual assault complaints involving student athletes. This year, the U.S. Department of Education also released the list of schools currently under investigation for their handling of Title IX complaints; as of last check, that list totaled 76 (including Florida State for how it managed an allegation of sexual violence against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston).

What we were trying to focus on here was, ‘What happens when colleges don’t act on reports of sexual assault or violence?’ They are legally obligated, under Title IX, to address reports of sexual assault or violence. But the federal regulators who oversee Title IX compliance say they see colleges and universities that simply aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do.

Answering the question as to what happens due to inaction involved building a pattern of incidents through police reports, public records and interviews. And then we needed to show that the results were more than just more reports of incidents. The results were women’s lives and how they’ve been altered forever because of what they say happened to them.

Among our biggest achievements was getting the University of Missouri to officially admit it did not conduct a Title IX investigation into the 2008 alleged rape. That involved a series of public records requests, revisions, long waiting periods and then disagreements with university officials over what should be provided, but we finally got the information we needed.

It was also a difficult and delicate process to get the women to talk to us. In some cases, we had no idea who these women were to begin with because their names had been redacted from police reports. Only through putting together all the pieces of information we had from other sources did we finally figure out who they were and track them down. And that’s a sensitive and sometimes dicey proposition to get someone to talk to you about what she sees as a very personal and often harrowing experience.

Producer Nicole Noren discusses some of the story's reporting
Nicole Noren
Nicole Noren

How did working on January’s piece help get you to where you are this week?
The day the Sasha Menu Courey story aired, I received an e-mail from a former Missouri student named Teresa Braeckel. Numerous people with connections to the school reached out after the story aired, but I was somewhat surprised to see a message from her in my inbox because I knew her name – she was ‘the tutor’ – the woman who’d accused star running back Derrick Washington of sexual assault in 2010.

Teresa knew Sasha from when she used to work for the athletic department, and we started a dialogue. Based on some information sources had given me during the Menu Courey investigation, I submitted a records requests to campus police and Columbia police. Washington’s sexual assault trial and eventual conviction was a national news story at the time, so we were surprised to receive two police reports accusing Washington of violent acts against women (including a forcible rape allegation) which had never been reported before. Both incidents occurred before Teresa’s assault.

Our records request prompted a campus police detective to call the woman (“Jess”) who accused Washington of raping her in 2008. His call surprised her – she later told us she had no idea any records existed regarding her allegation. The woman told us she had been wanting to reach out to Teresa for years, but Teresa’s name was never public until last fall when she was featured in the book, ‘The System.’ After the call from the detective, Jess contacted Teresa via Facebook, telling her she had been wracked with guilt since learning of Teresa’s assault. The women began a friendship, and they both began asking questions and seeking more information from the university regarding their cases. They are the main characters in our story.

What can viewers expect to see in this week’s reporting?
The issue of campus sexual violence and Title IX has been one of the most talked about topics in the media this year, and numerous stories have been about college athletes. We wanted to go beyond the statistics and look at what happens when Title IX investigations aren’t conducted.

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