NORMAN — Oklahoma linebacker Frank Shannon won’t face criminal prosecution on the allegations that he sexually assaulted a female student early on the morning of Jan. 20. Cleveland County District Attorney Greg Mashburn said Thursday that his office declined to charge Shannon weeks ago.
Shannon’s future at the University of Oklahoma, however, remains very much in limbo while an independent OU investigation runs its course, a legal requirement under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.
The district attorney explained the woman said she did not want Shannon prosecuted, and that it was unclear from the accounts of both the woman and the player "what had actually taken place."
Mashburn said Norman Police have not re-presented anything to his office. He said of OU's action: “What they do as far as a school goes is totally separate and apart from a criminal investigation and charges.”
Title IX is most often associated with maintaining gender balance and equal opportunity in athletic departments, but the civil rights law was established to prohibit gender discrimination in any education program or activity operated by an institution receiving federal funds.
Because sexual harassment is considered a form of gender discrimination, when it is brought to the attention of university staff, it must be promptly reported and investigated.
“If a school gets put on notice that there is some sort of sexual harassment or sexual assault, and they are deliberately indifferent to Title IX, then they can be held liable for Title IX violations because of discriminatorily favoring one gender over the other,” said Colorado-based attorney John Clune, who is currently representing the accuser of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.
Reached by telephone Thursday morning, Laura Palk, OU’s Institutional Equity and Title IX Coordinator, said she couldn’t comment on disciplinary matters.
When a complaint is received, OU’s Sexual Misconduct Office begins an investigation entirely independent of any criminal investigation. Once it has been determined that a policy violation has likely occurred, an investigative report is forwarded to the student conduct office.
Copies of that report are also provided to the complainant and the accused student, and any attorneys involved. The Oklahoman obtained a copy Wednesday of the report involving Shannon, dated March 21.
In the report, a woman alleges that early on the morning of Jan. 20 after a party, Shannon offered her a ride home but stopped by his off-campus apartment. The two went into Shannon’s bedroom, where the woman claims he pulled her pants down and tried to forcibly have sex with her.
The woman and Shannon both say they knew each other before the incident. Shannon denied the allegations in the report, saying that the woman laid on top of him, kissed him and removed her own clothes, but that after an argument over whether or not she was menstruating, he went to the bathroom and she left the apartment.
After receiving an investigative report, OU’s student conduct office meets with the accused student and recommends sanctions, which can be appealed to a disciplinary panel. The panel’s decision can be appealed as well.
Palk said a student can be found to have violated the OU policy, even if criminal charges are never filed.
If Shannon is found culpable after the process runs its course, he faces sanctions that range from education and counseling to expulsion.
The U.S. Education Department issued what is known as the “Dear Colleague Letter” in April 2011 to school districts, college and universities around the country. The letter was written to plainly spell out institutional responsibility in sexual harassment cases.
The letter states that regardless of whether the harassed student files a complaint, the school “must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.”
Included in OU’s investigative report are text messages between the complainant and friends in which the woman claims she was raped, but didn’t want police involvement out of concern for the effect it would have on the football team and her sorority.
The Dear Colleague Letter goes on to say that “a law enforcement investigation does not relieve the school of its independent Title IX obligation to investigate the conduct.”
Shannon, a 21-year-old junior and Dallas native, was Oklahoma's leading tackler last season and has appeared in 25 career games over the past two seasons, with 15 starts.
He remains on the team’s official roster, but didn't practice Thursday, nor did he participate in Saturday's spring game. According to sources, Shannon is still in Norman and attending classes during the Title IX investigation.
“While this timeframe is going on, it is helpful when the school can impose some sort of interim measures to make sure the victim is protected, and that she has the ability to continue her educational experience and go to class, and not be in fear of running into her assailant,” Clune said.
The situation involving Shannon comes at a time when sexual assault and major college athletics are at the forefront of public consciousness because of ongoing allegations involving Winston, the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner.
Both the university and Tallahassee, Fla., police have been widely criticized for their perceived lackadaisical response to the accusations against Winston, who never faced criminal charges for an alleged attack in December 2012.
Winston’s accuser recently hired Clune and Baine Kerr, prominent Title IX attorneys who are investigating Florida State’s response to the allegations and could eventually bring a federal lawsuit against the university.
In a Thursday afternoon interview with The Oklahoman, Clune said he’s never worked a Title IX sexual harassment case with OU and was unfamiliar with its policies and procedures, but that in his experience, most schools don’t deal with similar situations properly.
“They almost all handle it poorly,” Clune said, “particularly if its athlete-related violence, and particularly if it’s the men’s revenue sports like basketball and football.”