Appearing before a committee at the state Capitol on Wednesday, Abby Owens identified herself publicly for the first time as a survivor of a sexual assault by former LSU football star Derrius Guice, who she says assaulted her when they were both LSU athletes.
Owens was an LSU tennis player between 2013 and 2016, and she has alleged that Guice raped her in June 2016. She told her story on Wednesday to a Senate select committee on women and children, which convened for a hearing on sexual misconduct allegations at state universities. The committee meeting drew several students who said they were assaulted during their time at LSU, and Owens flew in to Baton Rouge to attend along with Samantha Brennan. They sat side by side Wednesday as they testified before the committee.
“Today is the first day that I’m publicly disclosing my identity because it’s super important to me what you guys are doing and I wanted to be here," Owens said.
Others, including Jade Lewis and Calise Richardson, told their own stories of domestic violence and other abuse at LSU by calling into the committee hearing. The bipartisan committee, entirely made up of women, was united in furor and anguish in reaction to the allegations. And the committee released a statement after the nearly 10-hour hearing calling on LSU to take stronger action and to issue harsher punishments for those who have been implicated in the scandal.
The hearing came five days after LSU's release of a critical investigation by the law firm Husch Blackwell, which at LSU's request probed how the university handled cases of sexual misconduct and domestic violence over the past several years. Husch Blackwell found myriad problems with how LSU handled those cases, saying that the university did not have enough staff or the proper organizational structure to deal with them.
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“There were young people who were permanently harmed, because they were sexually assaulted and nobody listened," said state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, who said that she is also a sexual assault survivor. "The entire system, academic and athletic, were OK with everybody lying. And the people who were harmed were students.”
The committee members were searing in their assessment of LSU, blistering Interim LSU President Tom Galligan with questions about how it was possible that LSU employees did not understand their obligations to report allegations of sexual assault and domestic violence. Many of the legislators called for LSU to go further in its punishments of employees who failed to report abuse. LSU has suspended two employees, one for 30 days and another for 21 days, and ordered them to undergo additional training.
Galligan apologized repeatedly at the hearing, saying that he was conflicted about how best to be fair to all parties involved. He said he was devastated by the report, thanked all of the survivors who have come forward and said he wanted to personally apologize to them. Without them, he said LSU would not have commissioned its investigation and found the necessary ways to move forward, though legislators were blunt in their view that LSU has not done enough.
Galligan said he expects LSU will spend around $1 million — which he said the university will prioritize within its current budget — on beefing up Title IX staffing and providing better resources.
Though all of the bipartisan committee's members were women and the hearing was disproportionately attended by women as well, some men spoke up. They included state Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, and state Rep. Jason Hughes, D-New Orleans.
A man also spoke up about his own sexual assault case at LSU. Ricky Bryant, an LSU junior studying mass communication, told the committee that he was assaulted in 2019.
“I no longer wanted to live, I no longer felt like my life had any value," Bryant said. "I didn’t get help because I knew that LSU would protect my abuser. I knew that survivors were never believed ….I knew that the culture on LSU’s campus stacked all odds against survivors getting justice.”
Owens and Brennan have become close friends through sharing their allegations. Both traveled to Baton Rouge last November to protest how LSU had handled cases of sexual misconduct and domestic violence after USA Today published investigations that detailed both of their stories.
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Brennan filed a police report in July 2016 alleging that Guice had shared a partially nude photograph of her without her permission. Brennan worked in the LSU athletics recruiting department during her time at LSU and left the university after the Guice incident.
She told the committee on Wednesday that LSU put "Derrius Guice's life in my hands" when it was up to her whether to pursue a criminal case against him. She didn't follow through with it, she said, because she thought that her incident with Guice was a one-time lapse from him.
An attorney for Guice has repeatedly denied the star running back did anything wrong during his time at LSU. Guice was arrested in Virginia last year on domestic violence charges, and the Washington Football Team has released him.
When Brennan tried to get a copy of her own police report from LSU, the university refused to release it and eventually only gave her a redacted version. She and USA Today sued LSU for a copy of the non-redacted version, and a Baton Rouge judge ordered it released. LSU has appealed the ruling.
Access to such reports became an issue during the legislative hearing.
State Sen. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, pressed higher education leaders on how much access both victims and alleged perpetrators have to their Title IX investigations, police reports and more. She said she worried it was not enough.
“I’m concerned about the lack of access for a victim to the information that they need to empower them to fight for justice for themselves," Cloud said. “These university systems, of course, many of them are taxpayer-funded, at least in a large part. That information, to me, belongs to the people. And I think that we, in some way shape or form as a legislature, need to hold universities accountable for giving that information to the victims.”
When it was Owens' turn to testify, she explained how she's been affected by what happened to her.
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Owens has said that she met Guice at a bar the night he raped her, and that the aftermath pushed her into a spiral of addiction. She was already struggling with prescription drug and alcohol abuse before the incident. She went to rehab in 2017, which is when she started to open up about Guice for the first time, she said. LSU wound up paying for her rehab.
Owens has repeatedly said that when her father reported the rape to tennis coach Julia Sell in April of 2017, Sell's response was that she did not believe it and that Owens was lying.
“When they told me, I will never forget how I felt," Owens said, describing it as her worst fears coming true about not being believed. “I felt so unappreciated, unvalued, I was scared to be there, I felt unsafe, unprotected. And so I left.”
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Sell told Husch Blackwell that she did not react that way to the allegation. Though Sell and Owens' father told Husch Blackwell differing versions of their conversation, the law firm found that Sell, as required, reported the allegation to senior associate athletic director Miriam Segar.
However, Husch Blackwell found that while Segar reported the allegation verbally to LSU's Title IX office, nobody created a written record of her disclosure. Husch Blackwell identified that as an error.
Nobody from LSU's Title IX office contacted Owens, even after she left rehab.
"No one from Athletics or, more importantly, the Title IX Office reached out to her to gather additional information about this assault," the Husch Blackwell report states. "This was an error."
Segar has been suspended from LSU for 21 days.
Legislators said they were shocked by the accounts they heard Wednesday.
“They are extremely brave for coming forward," said state Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge. "I cannot even imagine the trauma they have gone through, with the assault itself or the harassment itself, and then for the university not to protect them.”
Guice has been accused of raping two women — Owens and another — during his time at LSU, as well as sexual misconduct involving Brennan and another woman, according to Husch Blackwell.
"I don’t have very many kind words to say," said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell. "The former leadership of that university has been terrible and should shoulder much of the blame for where we are today."
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Legislators heard testimony Wednesday from the heads of all university systems in the state about how they've handled allegations of sexual misconduct on their campuses. Dr. Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana system, said that the UL campuses have built clauses into contracts with coaches and other employees on multiyear contracts that allow them to be fired for cause if they fail to comply with Title IX reporting requirements.
State Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said it's "mind-boggling" that not all university systems have adopted the same policy.