The Louisiana State University administrator who gave rapists, stalkers and abusers the lightest possible sanctions has been temporarily barred from being involved in student disciplinary cases pending an investigation by the school’s human resources department.
The investigation into Jonathan Sanders, LSU’s associate dean and director of student accountability, will examine his lenient punishments and mishandling of Title IX cases, which were outlined in a recent USA TODAY investigation, LSU spokesman Jim Sabourin confirmed.
The investigation will also cover allegations against Sanders in the report by Husch Blackwell, the law firm that LSU hired in November to review its handling of sexual misconduct and dating violence cases in response to reporting by USA TODAY.
Sanders, who before his current role served as LSU’s Greek life director, is tasked with deciding punishments for LSU students disciplined for conduct code offenses. From fall 2016 through fall 2020, that included students who’d been found responsible in Title IX investigations for sexual misconduct, stalking and dating violence.
LSU in August changed its Title IX policy in accordance with new federal regulations so that three-person hearing panels now make those decisions. But Sanders until now has continued to serve as a panelist in Title IX cases, and he remains in charge of sanctions in non-Title IX cases, such as physical assault and hazing.
Sanders has disputed some of the allegations in an email to USA TODAY and in testimony Friday to the Louisiana Senate Select Committee on Women and Children, which has been holding hearings into LSU’s years-long, systemic failure to protect students and hold perpetrators accountable.
The punishments Sanders issued, he said, were harsher than those doled out by his predecessor, and they’ve become increasingly more severe over time. Without naming names, he also blamed other LSU officials for the mishandling of some cases, saying Husch Blackwell mischaracterized his role.
Sabourin said Sanders is fully cooperating with the human resources investigation, and the temporary ban is to avoid the perception that he’s influencing the process during the review. He declined an interview request from USA TODAY.
USA TODAY found that, in more than half the Title IX cases referred to Sanders for punishment over the past four school years, he imposed sanctions that allowed guilty students to continue their coursework uninterrupted, instead of opting for more severe penalties, such as suspension or expulsion. During that time, Sanders expelled just one student.
From the 2016-2017 school year through the 2019-2020 school year, LSU found 46 students responsible for Title IX offenses, which include rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating and domestic violence and stalking.
Out those students found responsible, 18 were suspended, 14 received probation, 11 received deferred suspensions and two received warnings.
Under LSU policy, deferred suspensions, probation and warnings do not necessitate removal from classes or from campus. Deferred suspensions result in actual suspensions only if the student is found responsible for a subsequent violation.
In other words, LSU under Sanders’ direction allowed three of every five students found responsible for a Title IX offense to continue their coursework without interruption.
Sanders defended his sanction decisions, saying they were based on an “outcomes guide” issued by the school, which permitted light punishments for first-time offenses.
USA TODAY’s review, however, found that the outcomes guide allowed for harsher punishments, yet Sanders routinely opted for lighter ones.
On top of this lenient approach, several women told USA TODAY that Sanders added to their trauma by disciplining them for minor, unrelated infractions or questioning them in ways that cast doubt on stories found to be credible by Title IX investigators.
One female student told USA TODAY that Sanders questioned her about what clothes she wore the night a male student raped her while she was unconscious. She reiterated her claims to Husch Blackwell investigators.
Sanders denied asking the question, saying a different employee may have asked it.
In 2018, Sanders was one of the officials who led the university’s response to allegations that football player Drake Davis beat tennis player Jade Lewis.
Although Davis admitted in a June 2018 interview with LSU’s Title IX investigator that he had “punched (Lewis) in the stomach” during an argument, Sanders chose not to suspend Davis while the university investigated, nor did he issue a no-contact or other protective order to separate them. Husch Blackwell described this approach as “way too passive.”
During an investigation into one alleged beating, staff members reported finding a candle in Lewis’ dorm room, a violation of housing rules. The officials wasted no time citing Lewis for the candle, even as the case against Davis dragged on for several more months. Davis ultimately pleaded guilty in court to two assaults.
Sanders claimed he was not involved in making the candle decision, despite his testimony to Husch Blackwell, in which he explained that charging Lewis was a way of trying “to engage” with her, “to try and address the behavior with Drake.”
Two other female students said Sanders failed to contact witnesses in their cases against a fraternity member they reported for sexual assault in 2019. The fraternity member was found responsible for assaulting both women, but Sanders issued him a deferred suspension, despite the fact that LSU’s outcomes guide called for a suspension as the minimum sanction for a second sexual misconduct violation.
Sanders partially denied not contacting the witnesses, saying that LSU’s Title IX investigator contacted one of them.