Mizzou making strides in dealing with past and future in wake of alleged sexual assault cases

08/21/2014 10:06 PM

08/22/2014 10:19 AM

In contrast to its aloof initial response to the matter of Sasha Menu Courey, Missouri on Thursday immediately and more sympathetically responded to the introduction of other smoldering remnants of deficient past practices.

First, the school acknowledged, after another ESPN “Outside The Lines” report, that it had not complied with proper procedures in the wake of a 2008 sexual assault report against former MU tailback Derrick Washington.

“We failed to do a Title IX investigation of that case,” new MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said during a teleconference. “That’s true. That was wrong. We didn’t do it. We should have.”

This admission in itself is part of progress, maybe even major progress, in the aftermath of the January ESPN report on Menu Courey: The former MU swimmer committed suicide in 2011, a year after she said she was raped.

One way or another, she had been lost in the gridlock of a system.

In response, MU has been revamping its broader approach, overhauling support resources and ramping up staffing to add a full-time Title IX coordinator, a full-time Title IX investigator and five deputy coordinators.

“This is a new day,” Loftin said. “We have really changed a great deal in a few months.”

Which is a great start.

But only a start.

Even after Loftin spoke, there remain lingering questions about who knew what when and how they responded to it.

Those questions are particularly pertinent since the latest ESPN report revolved around two allegations of incidents by Washington, the former Raymore-Peculiar star.

He effectively was dismissed from the team just before the 2010 season and later was convicted in two other instances of violence against women.

Might those other instances have been preventable with stronger, more diligent responses to earlier accusations?

According to ESPN, then-Boone County assistant prosecuting attorney Andrew Scholz declined to press charges because of what it called “a number of issues that came up in interviewing witnesses that would weaken the woman’s case.”

Washington’s parents also told “Outside The Lines” that MU assistant football coaches met with them to talk about the alleged 2008 incident and suggested criminal charges weren’t likely to be filed.

That doesn’t sound right, and it leaves open to debate whether Mizzou football then had an obligation to take action of its own.

MU football can, and should, have a higher standard than the legal system.

But there is a lot that remains murky here, too, especially since the prosecutor saw problems with the case.

So it would be nice if athletic director Mike Alden and football coach Gary Pinkel would join Loftin in publicly addressing this.

Asked if he had been told why Washington was allowed to remain with the team in 2008, Loftin said he had spoken with Alden and been assured that for that time “proper procedures were followed at the coaching level.”

Loftin also said he believed that Alden and Pinkel needed time to digest this but will “fairly soon” be able to “talk to you about this.”

“We don’t want to hold them back,” said Loftin, who by all indications hasn’t spoken directly with Pinkel about it.

That’s not the only element of this that still could use some shading in if this really is “a new day.”

Beyond the 2008 incident report, ESPN reported that a former MU women’s soccer player said MU’s soccer coach (Bryan Blitz) had stifled her from pressing charges on an alleged physical assault by Washington in May 2010 by threatening her scholarship status.

“Her coach made her feel as though she would not have any problems with her scholarship if she declined to prosecute Derrick Washington for assaulting her,” the police report stated, adding, “If Mr. Washington was arrested, the incident would make the news and the situation with her scholarship might change.”

That scenario is the first sentence, in fact, of the ESPN story, which only later explains the context.

The woman and Washington’s girlfriend had fought each other in a bar. Each woman was arrested. During the fight, the former soccer player told police, Washington had struck her with “a closed fist on the left side of her face.”

In a statement from Loftin that preceded the teleconference, he rejected the claim that Blitz had coerced her in any way: “We spoke to the coach, the former player and others and found the claim to be unsubstantiated.”

Loftin later would say he believed the woman misunderstood Blitz.

“Sometimes two people talk to each other and leave … with a different understanding of the conversation,” he said, adding that Blitz “was clearly trying to tell his player (that) … her involvement with the law in this case could result in the revocation of her scholarship.”

But during the teleconference it seemed uncertain that MU actually had spoken with her anew.

Asked if MU’s stance that the accusation was unsubstantiated meant she had said she misunderstood, Loftin said: “I wouldn’t put it that way.” He reiterated that Blitz was trying to communicate the seriousness of being arrested and that “she may have taken it somewhat differently. And that’s what she said apparently to the police officer.”

So some of this raises more questions than it answers.

But at least they largely are questions about events of six and four years ago, not recent developments.

And work in progress that this may all be, MU moved forward on Thursday by making itself more accountable and accessible.

“I can’t say it’s perfect right now,” Loftin said. “But certainly we’ve come a long ways in just a few months.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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