Sexual assault accusers at JU, UNF claim they were intimidated, retaliated against

Two college students at different Jacksonville schools told News4Jax they were raped and, after that, both felt pressured to keep their attacks a secret.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two college students at different Jacksonville schools told News4Jax they were raped and, after that, both felt pressured to keep their attacks a secret.

Attorneys say these disturbing cases point out the prevalence of sexual assault at universities and a culture encouraging victims to not report the crimes to authorities.

A 2015 study from the Department of Justice found that approximately 25% of college-age females are raped, and only 20% of those actually come forward to police. News4Jax has spent months looking into the allegations of assault and attempted coverups.

Jacksonville University

The memories are still painful for Brittany Brown-Jackson.

She was a 17-year-old freshman at Jacksonville University. He was a football player at the school. The two were friends, crossing paths at an off-campus party, which he and his friends hosted.

“He provided the alcohol and the marijuana,” said Brown-Jackson. “After I split off from my friends, he said he would take me back (to campus). I was drunk but still like somewhat able to understand what was going on.”

Brown-Jackson reports that the athlete, three times her size, took her to his dorm and raped her.

She said he took her virginity, her innocence and her sense of safety at school.

Brown-Jackson said that after the attack, he made sure her friends washed her in the shower. She believes he could have been trying to get rid of potential DNA evidence. The next morning, he sent an apology text. Even with her report and his text, however, she felt those with knowledge of the allegations wanted the case to go away.

Scared silent, Jackson said she didn’t come forward about the attack until later because she was afraid of humiliation, retaliation or even violence. Eventually, she reported it to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and JU and went to the Women’s Center. By that time, however, she said the physical evidence was gone.

She now wants to reveal her identity and speak publicly to inspire other victims to come forward.

“I look at it like ‘Hey, she’s 17, that’s my little girl.’ It’s not a good feeling at all,” said her father, Joe Jackson.

He didn’t find out until months later. By then, Brown-Jackson had reported it to the police and the school, but she feels neither took it seriously.

“The whole thing from the beginning was not handled correctly,” Jackson said. “When the incident happened on the campus, they never contacted me or her mom. Four years later, criminal charges have not been filed.”

Ultimately, after an internal investigation, JU administrators found the student responsible for “sexual intercourse … without consent.” The school suspended him, according to JU records obtained by News4Jax, and he eventually unenrolled. It’s not enough for the Jackson family, who’s suing the private university and her alleged attacker.

“I can’t imagine releasing my minor child it to the university, having them make a complaint of rape and essentially being ignored,” said John M. Phillips, one of the private attorneys for Brown-Jackson’s civil case.

Laura Phelps, a JU spokesperson, responded to the allegations in an e-mail.

The athlete accused of the attack has not been charged criminally. In line with News4Jax’s policy, because he has not been arrested, he is not being publicly identified, although he is named in the civil suit.

University of North Florida

Months ago, a nervous yet determined University of North Florida student reached out to News4Jax. She said she was involved in a sexual assault investigation, after reporting she was raped at an off-campus party in 2019.

“My body was completely destroyed, and I was covered in bruises and I had handprints and bruises,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear for her safety.

The woman said she was a 19-year-old freshman at the time attending an off-campus Kappa Sigma fraternity party with her sorority sisters when she blacked out and a member of the frat raped her. She said she knew the student but was not in a relationship with him, nor was she interested in pursuing anything physical.

“I reported to the school the sexual assault,” she said. “And after that, I started having brothers coming to me and asking me if I could please revoke my statement and handle it with just them and not the school.”

After a lengthy investigation, UNF student conduct leaders found the student responsible and suspended him for three years, according to documents obtained by News4Jax. Another student, found responsible for trying to cover up the case, was also suspended for a year. UNF faculty leaders permanently banned the Kappa Sigma fraternity, partly due to members intimidating the accuser to not tell her story. The student conduct board also found members were continuing to hold parties even after a “social hold” suspension from the school.

The student conduct board found the fraternity not responsible, but that was overruled. Kappa Sigma’s national leadership is appealing the lifetime removal.

The accuser provided a letter from UNF notifying her that the case was closed. The letter also threatened there could be legal consequences if she spoke publicly about her experience. News4Jax later obtained a copy of the same letter from UNF through a public records request.

It reads, in part, “This information should not be shared with … third parties. Failure to maintain confidentiality … may be a violation of Federal and/or State law and could result in charges of violating the UNF Student Conduct Code.”

The accuser said at first it made her scared she’d be kicked out of school or arrested, but she later decided she was not going to let it silence her.

“After UNF was keeping quiet about it, it made me start to think I might want more justice,” she said. “Because it’s just kind of felt like the same thing as what happened with the fraternity.”

UNF’s communications department staff members said they were not able to comment because of an ongoing appeal. News4Jax has requested interviews with UNF President David Szymanski.

“A rape survivor is very similar to a whistleblower,” said civil rights attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar. “So schools need to expect retaliation. This is part of the human response. If somebody you love is accused of any crime, your natural reaction is to protect the person that you love, that you care about.”

Hogshead-Makar is a Jacksonville-based Title IX lawyer and Olympic gold medalist swimmer who was an expert witness in the USA Gymnastics Larry Nasser case. She’s also a rape survivor -- she was attacked while jogging in college in North Carolina. Her attacker was never caught. She said it’s no surprise young students are often scared silent.

“(Accusers) who have made a conscious decision it is not worth it forward,” she said. “It’s not worth it to try to remove this person. So many of those victims did not come forward because they were worried they would not make the Olympic team. Maggie Nichols did not make the 2016 Olympics because she was Athlete A.”

According to a 2015 study by the American Association of Universities, nearly 1 in 4 undergraduate women experience rape by physical force, and 5% of men counted said they had been assaulted.

And a 2014 Department of Justice report found only 20% of female student victims, age 18-24, report the crimes to law enforcement.

As for the document from UNF, which warned of possible criminal or conduct violations if the accuser talked about the case, Hogshead-Makar said that’s against the first amendment and it is part of the problem.

She pointed out the school cannot retaliate against the student for telling her story. She said people in that situation could have a legal case against the school. She said a school investigation does not take away a victim’s First Amendment rights and an assault is a matter of public interest. She pointed to the case of Jackson vs. Birmingham Board of Education.

“Why does it have to be a long road ahead?” Hogshead-Makar questioned. “Why? If we get serious about this, the same way we got serious about mothers against drunk driving, we would be able to make a real difference here for millions of girls and young women and boys, too.”

It’s a degrading and dangerous part of college culture, these women told News4Jax. By coming forward, they hope their story will encourage others to take a stand against sexual assault.

“The situation happens to so many other girls, women,” Brown-Jackson said. “And nothing gets done about it. They’re too scared to come forward. It’s OK to come forward because there are others that experienced the same situation.”

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.