Alexandra Reyes thought she had an airtight case of sexual misconduct for LSU to investigate.
During the spring semester, when coronavirus-related lockdowns went into effect and students started to leave campus in droves, she returned to her dorm room one night after taking a shower. She heard a noise and an eerie feeling crept over her: Was she being watched in her room, fully undressed?
She hid behind an armoire door, pulled on a pair of shorts and looked through a crack in the cabinet. Staring back at her, she said, was her suitemate’s boyfriend. His phone was out and he was filming her.
Reyes said she quickly confronted him and called police. They arrested the student, Alfonso Guzman, on counts of video voyeurism and burglary, and he confessed to entering Reyes’ room and recording her without her consent, according to an initial police report. His attorney entered a not guilty plea on his behalf during a September arraignment on both charges.
Reyes also reported the incident to LSU’s Title IX office, which, pursuant to the federal law barring discrimination by gender, investigates allegations of sexual harassment, dating violence and more. Title IX investigators found that Guzman violated LSU’s sexual misconduct policy, records show. But when it came time to determine his punishment, Reyes said Associate Dean of Students Jonathan Sanders repeatedly advocated for a penalty she regarded as a slap on the wrist — a deferred suspension, in which a student remains on campus and will only be suspended if they’re found responsible for violating another university policy in the future.
“He kind of kept pushing the deferred suspension, where you get to stay on campus but if you mess up, then you get suspended,” said Reyes, 20, a biological sciences major from Friendswood, Texas, south of Houston, who goes by “Alex.”
Of eight women who have spoken to The Advocate | The Times-Picayune about their experiences with sexual misconduct and the Title IX process, half said that deferred suspensions seemed like LSU’s preference for students accused of sexual misconduct. They spoke to the newspaper amid a wave of outrage on campus over the university’s failures in its handling of cases of sexual misconduct and Title IX violations.
LSU administrators have said little publicly about the scandal, saying only that they are awaiting the results of a review by the law firm Husch Blackwell, which the university hired to examine allegations that LSU has protected star athletes and more broadly failed to abide by Title IX.
Some students who spoke to The Advocate expressed frustration with the “remedy” phase of the Title IX process at LSU, which often results in weaker punishments than they wanted. For others, the process was flawed from the outset, because administrators did not report potential violations even after students made allegations that should have required reporting. And for some, the Title IX process grew lengthy and consuming enough that they wondered if reporting their allegations was the right move after all.
Sanders did not return messages for this story. An LSU spokesman said they could not comment on specific cases.
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The Advocate generally does not name victims of sexual offenses and domestic violence, but those named in this story opted to reveal their identities. Some of those interviewed said they wanted to remain anonymous.
Many female students who reported allegations of sexual misconduct said they found themselves in a Catch-22 as they went through the interview process. Those who broke down in tears or lashed out in anger to investigators worried that expressing so much emotion had diminished their credibility. Reyes also believed the opposite to be true.
“I can be composed when I need to, and I think that LSU thinks that I’m maybe not as affected from it, so he can get away with a lesser punishment when it should be just, his actions,” she said. “I didn’t show the right emotions, I didn’t freak out during the investigation, I didn’t do enough for them to adequately punish him.”
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It’s an age-old problem.
“It seems people have these assumptions about how a person is supposed to respond to sexual assault,” said Monica Beck, a Michigan attorney who specializes in Title IX and sexual assault cases. “If a woman reports and she doesn’t cry, she’s criticized. On the other hand, if she’s extremely emotional and crying, she can be regarded as hysterical.”
Early missteps create later trouble
When a student reports an allegation of sexual misconduct, dating violence or a similar concern to a university employee, LSU has an obligation under the federal Title IX law to investigate it. It’s also an early crossroads where these cases can veer off the rails.
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“Just letting someone know and the very first initial steps can make or break how appropriate the school’s response is going to be,” said Joseph Vincent, a former Title IX coordinator and a consultant for the TNG Group, which does risk management training for institutions. “It’s an important juncture because what happens to that notice can frame an appropriate response or not.”
Four women who have recently come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct or domestic violence against LSU football players said they reported their complaints to the right officials, but those complaints did not appear to trigger Title IX investigations. Samantha Brennan, who accused former LSU star running back Derrius Guice in 2016 of taking a partially nude photo of her and sharing it without her permission, said she went to associate athletic director Sharon Lewis with her complaint.
She said that Lewis brought in senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar as a victim advocate and they encouraged her to report the incident to police.
Segar helped Brennan file a report with LSU police, and Brennan later declined to pursue criminal charges. Brennan’s police reports — which she spent months trying to obtain from LSU, and in which LSU redacted Guice’s name — show that she told police in August 2016 that she “wished to remain anonymous as it relates to” Title IX and other services that LSU provides for victims." But Brennan said that she never heard from anyone in LSU’s Title IX office after the incident. That’s not how the system is supposed to work.
“Any federally funded school setting, when an administrator finds out about a sexual assault, they should definitely report it to the Title IX office,” said Beck. Beck cited a well-known lawsuit in Michigan, where a high school student accused a basketball player of sexual assault, and the school quickly notified law enforcement but failed to conduct its own investigation. The school district settled the case.
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Segar did not return a message from The Advocate. Lewis was found to have violated Title IX in a separate LSU investigation involving another student, but her attorney said the investigation was flawed and that Lewis was not responsible.
Two years after Brennan’s incident, former LSU football wide receiver Drake Davis texted executive deputy athletic director Verge Ausberry and admitted to hitting his girlfriend, former LSU tennis player Jade Lewis, who has no relation to Sharon Lewis. Ausberry also failed to report Davis’ allegation to Title IX, to police or to anyone else, in an apparent violation of federal law. Ausberry has said that Davis recanted the confession after he called him, and that he did not realize Title IX was applicable because the girlfriend’s enrollment status was unclear at the time.
For students whose complaints made it past the first hurdle and reached LSU's Title IX office, there were other obstacles. Once a complaint is formalized, the office is meant to conduct an investigation and determine an outcome. Students have the option to appeal it.
Two women who went through the investigative process said that LSU’s Title IX campus coordinator, Jennie Stewart, seemed dismissive of their complaints. Another student, Bridget Ryan, who graduated from LSU last year and who interviewed Stewart for a class project about sexual assault on LSU’s campus, said she was shocked by a statement that Stewart made at the time: “sexual assault should not be a scarlet letter on someone’s record.”
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Stewart did not return a request for an interview from The Advocate.
There were a few bright spots amid the criticisms. Several students reported good experiences with LSU’s Title IX lead investigator Jeffrey Scott, who they said treated them respectfully and seemed to care about their well-being through the process. Many also said they found important resources and comfort through LSU’s Lighthouse Program, which provides survivors of sexual assault, violence and similar incidents with emotional support and various other services.
While episodes of sexual misconduct are often emotionally wrenching and leave victims demanding immediate justice, Title IX investigations are meant to be slow, deliberate and without a rush to judgment, said Vincent, the former Title IX coordinator. That can make them unsatisfying, regardless of the outcome.
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“Even if the school did everything right, someone still had a negative and potentially horrific experience, and this process can’t make it go away,” he said.
Deferred suspensions a letdown for victims
Reyes said she was relieved when LSU finished its Title IX investigation and found Guzman responsible for video voyeurism. But that relief was quickly replaced with frustration once she found out that a deferred suspension was on the table.
Sanders emailed her on May 26 with a list of potential outcomes in her case, and highlighted “deferred suspension” in bright yellow.
“There are loss of privileges for this status,” he wrote, emphasizing that the punishment “may include” students not being allowed to participate in study abroad, intramural teams or being removed from residential facilities.
Reyes made a final pitch, attempting to convey how deeply the incident affected her and saying she was uncomfortable potentially seeing Guzman on campus in the future.
“After doing a little bit of research on what that might be, it seems like deferred suspension favors more like an inconsequential warning and a slap on the hand over something more severe and fitting of the crimes,” Reyes emailed to Sanders. “When I think about the fact that he knowingly and illegally entered into my room without permission and then illegally used his phone against me when I was in a compromised situation, these illegal actions and events do not seem fitting of a response that equates to a warning where there is no consequence from his crimes.”
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Guzman did not participate in an interview with Title IX investigators, but his attorney told The Advocate that they otherwise cooperated with the investigation and did not seek an appeal. The East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office has charged him, but the case is still pending.
Others have felt similarly discouraged by LSU’s seeming preference for deferred suspensions.
An LSU sophomore alerted Title IX investigators after she said that about a year ago, a former friend of hers held her down on her dorm room bed, penetrated her with his fingers and nearly forced his penis inside of her before she stopped him. She said she was diagnosed afterward with post-traumatic stress disorder, and decided seven months after the incident that she should report it to Title IX because she worried the student posed a threat to other women on campus.
As evidence, she had a text message that he sent her afterward, in which he apologized and wrote a detailed description of the events of that night, including that he heard her asking him to stop as she pushed him away.
She provided records to The Advocate that show LSU deemed him responsible for sexual misconduct and violating Title IX.
“I was really excited,” said the student, who asked that her name not be published. “I truly believed something was going to happen.”
But then LSU handed down the punishment: deferred suspension and a no-contact order. She said she requested that the infraction somehow be noted on his transcripts, in case he wanted to apply to graduate school, but LSU said that wouldn’t be possible under a deferred suspension.
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“I wish that they had given him an actual punishment,” she said. “Anything, a suspension for a semester, to keep anyone safe.”
Caroline Schroeder, who graduated from LSU in May, also filed a Title IX complaint in 2017 after she said a fraternity member groped her on a bus trip. She did not plan to go forward with the investigative process, but when another woman told her the same man had sexually assaulted her on the same bus trip, they decided to go forward with their complaints together last year.
Again, she said Sanders recommended a deferred suspension, this time coupled with anger management classes, for the accused student.
“He said we could appeal but he wouldn’t recommend it because it would take a huge emotional toll,” she said.
I’ve never watched LSU tennis — I’m not sure where on campus the team plays — and I have barely passed through Tiger Stadium’s gates.
The women decided they were prepared to take on that burden. Schroeder and the other woman did appeal, which means a University Hearing Panel of three to five faculty members, staff members and students got to hear their case. The panel decided that the student should be suspended for two semesters.
Beck said that institutions have a duty to try to prevent future sexual offenses on campus. Punishments like deferred suspensions for students who have committed serious offenses may not do enough to discourage that type of misconduct in the future, she said.
While the appeal process allows for a case to get a second look, it may also be more difficult for victims to endure than it was last year. Recent changes to Title IX rules issued at the federal level now allow an attorney or an adviser for the student accused of misconduct to cross-examine the accuser.
Beck said that while she favors building due process into the system, such cross-examinations “can be very, very traumatizing” for victims.
“That level of antagonism and sort of adversarial nature of the process, we’re accustomed to seeing it in a courtroom, but it’s never been part of an internal resolution,” Vincent said.
Reyes’ case did not come to that. After she emailed Sanders to voice her objections to the deferred suspension, he meted out a harsher penalty: a one-year suspension and a no-contact directive. She considered it a success, but she wondered why it required so much advocacy on her part.
“I really did kind of have to stand up for myself and speak my mind,” she said. “I had to do this on my own.”
Editor's note: This story was updated after its original publication for clarity about which LSU officials were involved in Samantha Brennan's case.