If Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer knew of allegations that a former assistant had committed domestic violence against his then-wife, the school’s written policies required him to report those allegations within five work days, said a Columbus education law attorney.
The questions OSU must try to answer now: Are the allegations against former OSU Assistant Coach Zach Smith true? And did Meyer — now on paid administrative leave from the university — know about the allegations?
“Here’s the bottom line: When an employee of the university is faced with or becomes aware of a situation that potentially fits within the Title 9 parameters, or within the university policy, they are far better off to err on the side of reporting the information,” said Chris Conard, an attorney with the Coolidge law firm.
Title 9 is a federal anti-sex discrimination statute.
Mark Weiker, a Columbus attorney who practices education law with the firm Albeit Weiker LLP, said Ohio State’s policies appear clear: The university expects employees who become aware of allegations of domestic violence within the OSU community to quickly report those charges.
“You have a reporting obligation because they’re trying to keep the environment free of sexual misconduct and harassment,” Weiker said.
Weiker expects OSU to take its time, conduct a thorough investigation and treat both Smith and Meyer fairly.
“They need to investigate the situation and see if, No. 1, there are violations by the assistant coach — which has not been determined, at least publicly — and No. 2, see if there’s a reporting obligation,” he said.
On Wednesday afternoon, OSU released a statement saying it is investigating the matter.
“During the inquiry, Urban Meyer will be on paid administrative leave,” OSU said. “Ryan Day will serve as acting head football coach during the investigation. We are focused on supporting our players and on getting to the truth as expeditiously as possible.”
Messages seeking comment were sent to OSU representatives Thursday.
Private vs. public
A private company’s obligations in these situations depend on that company’s policies — and companies outline their own obligations, Weiker said.
A public university is different — especially if it receives federal funds. Those universities have obligations under Title 9, he said.
Jennifer Hann Harrison, an attorney with the firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister, said there is no one-size-fits-all answer for employers in these situations.
Private employers need to first consider what federal, state or local law requires in situations where employees are accused of domestic violence.
Then they need to consider their own internal policies, she said.
“The fact that the university is taking this seriously and is undertaking its own investigation I think is important,” Harrison said.
Ohio State’s policy is typical of an university that gets federal funds, Weiker said. The university appears to have adopted policies that mirror Title 9’s obligations, he said.
Reading directly from the university’s own policies, Weiker said: “It says at the top, ‘The university community seeks to eliminate sexual misconduct through education and by encouraging everyone to report concerns or complaints — including third-parties when the accused is a member of the university community.”
“Again, pretty clear,” Weiker added. “This includes relationship violence and domestic violence.”
The ultimate sanction for the university is loss of federal funding. But Weiker said that’s rare, if not unheard of.
At this point, Weiker thinks OSU took the right step by placing Meyer on administrative leave while it conducts an investigation.
Language in Urban Meyer’s contract with the university also address a “failure … to promptly report … any known violations of Ohio’s State’s sexual misconduct policy (including but not limited to sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual exploitation, intimate violence and stalking) …”
Experts said the alleged case involving Smith and his wife is common.
It’s common for victims of domestic violence to find themselves in cones of silence. The people in their lives might be unwilling or just unsure of how to help. People often return several times to abusive partners and their relationships with friends and family might slip away as their loved ones feel like it is pointless to continue to try to help.
Courtney Griffith, YWCA’s Preble County manager, said if a person thinks someone they know is in an abusive relationship, they can let them know that they are worried and are here to listen.
“If they do witness abuse, that is 100 percent illegal and they can call 911. But just for suspecting, they can’t force that potential victim to come forward,” she said.
People can also let someone they suspect is abused know about the YWCA’s 24-hour hotline at (937) 222-7233, where they can call anonymously even if they aren’t willing to talk with friends and family about abuse.
Griffith said it is important to continue to be there for a person in an abusive relationship, even if they are not ready to report abuse or leave, because when they leave they are going to need support. Women often end up at the YWCA’s shelter or calling their hotline because they have lost touch with anyone they can ask for help.
“That’s why it important to continue to be there for that person, even if they left and went back. When they finally do leave for good, they are going to need you again,” she said.
Sometimes people don’t say something when they suspect domestic violence because they write it off as a family matter or a personal issue.
“That is not just a family issue. That’s a person’s right to be safe in their own home. I think that we need to advocate for that,” Griffith said.
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