A Broken System at Ohio State

The university shut down its comprehensive sexual assault unit after complaints of mismanagement and potential retraumatization of survivors -- and experts question whether the model can be successful at all.

July 10, 2018
 

Ohio State University has dissolved its sexual assault unit amid complaints that employees there told survivors they were lying about reports of sexual misconduct and that they suffered from mental illness or were “delusional.” The institution indicated, too, that the center failed to document and report sexual assaults in a timely way, despite university policy that dictates all employees do so.

These centers consolidate resources for survivors of sexual assault, and some have existed for decades, though others are new and continue to crop up at institutions around the country. But experts question their effectiveness, saying they are often are staffed with people who haven’t been trained to properly and sensitively help victims of assault through their trauma.

Ohio State started its program, the Sexual Civility and Empowerment unit, or SCE, about three years ago. It was meant to be a campus one-stop shop of sorts for students, a place where victims could find support and where programs around sexual assault could be developed. Campus officials heralded the model and called the university a “national leader” in dealing with these issues.

The university hasn’t disclosed exact details about why the center closed. Though it hired auditors to review the unit, university officials have refused to make the report from the investigation public, saying it could breach student privacy. An Ohio State spokesman refused to provide Inside Higher Ed with the report, citing federal privacy laws and attorney-client privilege.

But employee records and other documents Ohio State released, about 200 pages’ worth, provide some idea of the alleged mismanagement at SCE. They include stories of a staffer exaggerating her credentials, refusing to use established and successful precedents for working with victims, and bullying among employees -- a narrative that fits with the pattern that survivor advocates say they have seen at these centers.

“I’ve seen too many bad instances to feel confident in them,” Carly Mee, the interim executive director of SurvJustice, a legal advocacy group for sexual assault survivors, said about the centers. “There’s so many alleged instances of them not meeting their responsibilities and just letting things go from there. Employees might not have proper training or the university isn’t monitoring them. I just think it’s a way for schools to shirk their obligations and just let them run on their own.”

Many of the allegations about the center’s flaws come from a report by a former employee, Jill Davis, who quit the unit in 2016 to work for a regional crisis and prevention network outside the university.

Davis said that one staff member lied about being trained by the OhioHealth Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio (SARNCO), where Davis left to go work. The staff member refused to cooperate with SARNCO and other campus professionals, instead relying on her own, invented methods for helping survivors, Davis said. She would brag about being contracted to work with Ivy League institutions on their sexual misconduct policies, which was untrue, Davis said.

That employee also was one of several Ohio State officials sued in federal court by a former student who alleged due process violations after being accused of sexual assault.

At least four employees at the center were fired after it was shut down last month. There is no mention in the records obtained by Inside Higher Ed of the employee Davis referenced being disciplined. Her reviews were glowing, though Davis said the employee was adamantly defended by another campus director, who conducted the reviews. A different employee was put on paid leave in February after the university received “reporting concerns” in the unit. That same month, the university “suspended” the center.

According to survivor reports to SARNCO, which often works with the university, those who came to the center were sometimes told they had “an active imagination” or that they wouldn’t receive campus services because they refused to disclose the identity of the person who assaulted them. These reports were included in records that Ohio State released.

Staffers at Ohio State’s center also told some survivors that they needed to exaggerate their stories because their experiences weren’t “serious enough” to get justice or receive legal protection, according to the documents.

A ‘Rapidly Evolving Landscape’

Alison Kiss, director of Clery Center, a group that helps institutions comply with the federal Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act, told The Columbus Dispatch that she had never seen this type of center close before.

Advocates said in interviews that the usefulness of these offices varies. But with the quickly evolving changes to the federal gender antidiscrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, institutions have struggled to keep up, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults on Title IX with colleges and universities.

In 2011, the Obama administration attempted to strengthen protections for survivors on campus by revamping the Title IX guidance in the form of a Dear Colleague letter. Though supporters of rape victims credited the Obama rules as a step forward for survivors, Obama’s critics have said that the guidelines were unfairly slanted against accused students.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has since rescinded these rules and put in an interim version with more flexibility for institutions. This had led to some confusion among institutions nationwide and shifting of their Title IX policies.

“Just speaking generally, these are the challenges that universities are facing -- a rapidly evolving landscape with pre-existing resources not always set up and well fitted to the changes in the field,” Carter said. Finding the right personnel to staff these centers and who can keep up with shifts has proved challenging. If institutions haven’t set up their Title IX policies correctly, good employees can get frustrated. Carter recalled one high-ranking Title IX investigator at another Ohio institution who left after his suggestions were continually blocked.

Mee, of SurvJustice, said these offices too often fail to put students first. Understandably, she said, they must follow their institution’s policies and cater to them, meaning a survivor might not want their rape reported but may find that higher administrators are informed anyway. It’s confusing for students whether the centers are independent -- overwhelmingly, they are not, Mee said.

Ohio State has brought in a Philadelphia-based law firm, Cozen O’Connor, to help develop a “redesigned, best-in-class model” for helping sexual assault survivors and to review its Title IX program.

The campus’s current sexual misconduct initiative, Buckeyes ACT, was born after a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights ended in 2014. That investigation was related to a sexual harassment scandal involving Ohio State’s marching band -- new members were given humiliating, sexually tinged nicknames and forced to mime sex acts. The university agreed to change a number of its Title IX policies as part of an agreement with the department.

“Our campuses must be safe places for all members of our community to learn, work and grow. We remain steadfastly and unwaveringly committed to this goal,” President Michael V. Drake said in a statement last month.

Carter said what campuses should do in re-evaluating their programs is to first survey the campus -- get an idea of the barriers students face in reporting sexual assaults, and design around those responses. Ohio State published its third campus climate survey in September.

“There is no cookie-cutter response,” he said. “All institutions should do this. There are certain basic things to do to comply with Title IX and the Clery Act, but those are compliance. It’s the foundation. And not the solution, which goes beyond compliance.”

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