A University of Virginia spokesman confirmed there is an active police investigation into the hazing and harassment allegations made by former football player Aidan Howard in his recently filed federal civil rights lawsuit. The probe is in addition to an internal Title IX investigation at the school.
"The University of Virginia places a high priority on the safety and well-being of every member of its community. Specifically, as it relates to Mr. Howard's legal filing, UVA is conducting a thorough investigation that involves several steps in the fact-finding process," university deputy spokesman Matt Charles wrote in an email.
The lawsuit states that, on Aug. 12, Howard was forced to fight another first-year football player after a team practice as part of an "initiation" into the football program. Howard suffered a broken eye socket as a result of the fight, which he claims he was made to participate in in order to prove his "toughness and manliness." Howard did not want to fight but felt he had no choice, for fear of continued bullying and harassment, according to the lawsuit.
Howard alleged that a general "culture of bullying, abuse, harassment, and discrimination" exists at UVa. The receiver claimed he witnessed other football players coerce first-year teammates into "conduct which imitated and mimicked sexual acts," and that players were made to participate in fights and wrestling matches while naked or partially naked, "an act referred to at UVA as 'ramming.'"
Charles, the university spokesman, went on to say, "upon receiving a report from the UVA Athletics Department on August 16 concerning the hazing allegations, the University reported the matter to the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorneys in accordance with Virginia state law. The University Police Department, the Office of the Dean of Students and UVA's Title IX office began concurrent investigations consistent with university policies and procedures."
"Mr. Howard and his counsel participated in interviews with the University Police Department in August and also have been interviewed by members of the University's Dean of Students and Title IX offices," Charles wrote. "Other staff and students have been interviewed in connection with this matter, as well. This investigative review is on-going."
According to the school's policy on Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Other Forms of Interpersonal Violence (which was implemented in July 2015), the university "urges anyone who becomes aware of an incident of Prohibited Conduct to report the incident immediately" to either the Title IX Coordinator, or via a "Just Report It" hotline. Howard says he was treated by a team trainer — and visited by a coach — following the incident, but it's not clear why four days passed before the athletic department reported it to school officials on Aug. 16.
Howard's attorney Jim Zeszutek, confirmed the police investigation and told Outside the Lines that UVa police came to Howard's home state of Pennsylvania to interview him on Aug. 29. He also said that UVAPD asked Howard to submit a statement, and that was provided to police on Sept. 23.
It's not clear if any specific person is the target of the UVAPD investigation or what charges are being considered.
Charles also said, "Alleged violations of University policy are investigated to determine appropriate disciplinary and remedial measures, including legal recourse. UVA takes prompt action to provide support services to affected students, review conduct and impose discipline for violations of UVA policy and athletic codes of conduct.
"The University's responses to this particular case are consistent with its approach to ensuring the well-being of our students that include a hazing hotline and its long-standing 'Just Report It' online resource."
UVa began its Title IX investigation on Aug. 16. The Department of Education recommends that internal Title IX investigations take no longer than 60 calendar days, but does not require it. When UVa provided this updated statement to Outside the Lines, the investigation had been ongoing for 66 days. When asked why the investigation was still ongoing, and when campus disciplinary hearings will be taking place, school officials had no further comment.
The lawsuit names the university, as well as six defendants, including school president Teresa A. Sullivan, athletic director Craig Littlepage, wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, graduate assistant Famika Anae and wide receivers Doni Dowling and David Eldridge. Head coach Bronco Mendenhall is not named.
Despite the ongoing Title IX and police investigations — active since August — Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae, Famika's father, said Saturday that the lawsuit "came out of nowhere."
"It kind of blindsided all of us," Robert Anae, who is not named in the lawsuit, said after the Cavaliers' loss to North Carolina. "We did look at that as a distraction. We had to handle it as such and we'll continue to handle that as a distraction."
Paula Lavigne can be reached at [email protected]
Nicole Noren can be reached at [email protected]