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U of M leaders followed rules during football sex assault investigation, review finds

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota followed both federal law and its own policies while investigating and punishing several football players for an alleged sexual assault, an external review has found.

In a report to a Board of Regents panel Wednesday, Aug. 16, lawyers with Dorsey & Whitney said U students accused of sexual assault are afforded extensive due process protections. However, they made several recommendations for revising protocols.

Those recommendations included:

• Consider additional due process protections. The firm took no stand on such items as recording interviews or requiring a higher standard of proof, but they noted some protections could be implemented easily and cheaply.

• Include a "clear intent standard" for students suspected of aiding and abetting student conduct code violations;

• Consider amnesty for students reporting university rules violations;

• Work with other Big 10 schools to reduce sexual misconduct by student-athletes;

• Characterize conclusions by the Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office as "charges" rather than "findings" in order to avoid confusion between the investigation and adjudication.

• Consider a periodic peer review or audit of the EOAA.

"We can always get better," attorney John Marti said.

Four players were suspended in September following a reported sexual assault but they were allowed to return to the team in October after prosecutors declined to file charges. When the same four players, along with six teammates, were suspended again in December, the team threatened to skip the Holiday Bowl game.

The U ultimately decided to expel the original four suspects, and a fifth was suspended for one year.

Those disciplinary decisions, attorney Jillian Kornblatt said, were "all consistent with university policies and relevant law."

Marti said the football team's initial decision to boycott the bowl game was influenced by "weak leadership" by football coaches, who failed to counter messages from unnamed third parties.

The head coach at the time, Tracy Claeys, publicly supported the boycotting players. He was fired soon after the team's bowl game win.

Regent Steve Sviggum on Wednesday questioned Marti's characterization of Claeys as a weak leader.

"I believe it's well informed by substantial facts," Marti said, later adding, "The coaching staff had lost control over the team."

The attorneys did not let university administration entirely off the hook. Marti said the administrators, regents and coaches have a responsibility to communicate about the investigation and discipline in a more coordinated, unified manner.

Marti added that federal laws on student privacy prevented U leaders from discussing the suspensions, but that inability bred mistrust among the players.

He also noted that the U never said that specific players were accused of sexual assault. Media outlets got that information mainly from attorneys representing the players.

After hearing the report Wednesday, the three-member regents panel passed a resolution directing President Eric Kaler to implement changes where appropriate.

University spokesman Evan Lapiska said Dorsey & Whitney has been paid $179,000 for the review as of July 1, and the total bill should be around $200,000.

Regents chairman Dean Johnson announced the special review in March under pressure from regents Michael Hsu and Darrin Rosha.

"If it's shelved and no improvement is made, then it's not worth it. But if we make improvements for both victims and the accused, then there's value," Rosha said Wednesday.

Tom Anderson, who led the regents panel, found it worth the time and expense.

"It's good to do it to make sure that what we did was correct and our processes were the right processes," he said.

Since last fall, Marti said, the U has taken "substantial and aggressive efforts" to educate student-athletes and staff about the student conduct code and investigative process.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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