FSU settles lawsuit with Winston accuser

Former student said university violated her Title IX rights by not appropriately investigating rape claim

BY BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – Florida State University has agreed to pay almost $1 million to settle a lawsuit by a woman who accused the school’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback of sexual assault in a case that sparked a national conversation on athletics and rape.

160129_florida01bEven as they announced the settlement, though, FSU officials made it clear they didn’t believe the university had failed to address seriously Erica Kinsman’s claims that she was assaulted by Jameis Winston. In 2013, Winston led the school’s football team to a national championship; he now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL.

University President John Thrasher said Monday the school wanted to avoid “fighting over the past rather than looking toward its very bright future,” portraying the settlement as an economic decision.

Then-Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is interviewed and photographed during the BCS Championship Game Media Day at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa in Newport Beach, Calif., on Jan. 4, 2014. (STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)
Then-Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston is interviewed and photographed during the BCS Championship Game Media Day at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa in Newport Beach, Calif., on Jan. 4, 2014.
(STEPHEN M. DOWELL/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS)

“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 in a statement released by the school. “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.”

Record Title IX payment
FSU said Kinsman was expected to receive $250,000 under the settlement, pointedly adding that the woman’s legal team will get $700,000. Kinsman’s attorneys said the total payment would be “the largest in history to a single plaintiff to settle Title IX discrimination claims of this kind.”

Title IX is the portion of federal law guaranteeing equal opportunity in federally funded education programs regardless of gender.

The university also agreed to a five-year effort to combat sexual assault on campus, the lawyers said.

In a statement released through her attorneys, Kinsman said she was grateful for the settlement.

“I’ll always be disappointed that I had to leave the school I dreamed of attending since I was little,” she said. “I am happy that FSU has committed to continue making changes in order to ensure a safer environment for all students.”

Media reports traditionally do not name women who say they were sexually assaulted, but Kinsman has gone public with her story.

Part of documentary
The settlement of the legal case against FSU will not affect an ongoing civil-rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education or a lawsuit against Winston, according to Kinsman’s lawyers.

Winston has said his encounter with Kinsman was consensual, and former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major Harding ruled after a two-day hearing in 2014 that the quarterback couldn’t be found in violation of the student conduct code.

Kinsman’s allegations, which burst into the open in the middle of Winston’s Heisman-winning campaign and FSU’s quest for its first national title in more than a decade, helped ignite a nationwide discussion of sexual violence and higher education – particularly in regard to big-money college football. Her story later served as one of the central anecdotes in “The Hunting Ground,” a controversial documentary arguing universities have turned a blind eye to sexual assault.

‘kNOw more’ campaign
Kinsman’s lawsuit accused FSU of failing to act quickly to address Kinsman’s allegations, which she first made months before Winston took the field. But the school said her accusations against Winston didn’t get to the appropriate university officials until the football season was underway and that the officials who were aware of the accusations earlier didn’t know enough to take action.

FSU also said Kinsman initially decided not to take her allegations to the student discipline process at the university.

In Monday’s announcement, FSU highlighted the steps it has taken since Kinsman’s allegations to try to fight sexual assault. The school established a Sexual Assault Prevention Task Group, launched the “kNOw more” campaign and hired an expert on sexual assault as Title IX coordinator. It also created six new positions aimed at making the campus safer.

“In this time, we have increased our institutional commitment to tackle this complex problem,” Thrasher said. “There should be no doubt that Florida State is serious about fighting sexual assault.”

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