USC Title IX:
An ongoing case with no end in sight
Beginning on August 14, 2020, universities are only required to investigate cases of sexual harassment that are "unwelcome conduct" and "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to education," according to new federal government changes announced last week.
The Department of Education's new guidelines for Title IX will change the way colleges investigate and handle cases of sexual assault and harassment.
In 1972, the Office of Civil Rights established Title IX to prohibit sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funding. Supreme Court decisions broadened this definition to cover sexual harassment and sexual violence. Under Title IX, if a school fails to respond and address hostile educational environments, it risks losing its federal funding.
One of the department's recent changes allows alleged perpetrators or violators of misconduct to cross-examine the student accuser in a live hearing.
Many sexual assault advocates and lawyers have voiced concerns with the new Title IX changes and believe they will deter students from reporting cases.
When Rachel Holzer, a sophomore at the University of Southern California, went to the USC Title IX Office in 2018, she was told she would have to be cross-examined and interrogated by her perpetrator, and that she had a very low chance of winning. She said this discouraged her and influenced her decision not to move forward with her sexual assault case.
Holzer said when she went into the office for her initial report she also remembers being asked inappropriate and invasive questions, including how her vagina and body felt, and if she had felt like she had sex the next morning.
At USC, many students already distrust the Title IX Office and do not feel comfortable reporting cases. According to a nationwide survey of leading American universities conducted in 2019, 61.4% of female and 39.5% of male undergraduate students believed it is very or extremely unlikely that campus officials would take a report seriously.
Eva Norris said she chose not to report her assault after consulting with the Title IX Office during her freshman year. "In general, people don't trust [the office] very much," said Norris, "because they hear from other people the process takes too long, or as a victim, it's too traumatizing."
The new regulations also revoke the Obama administration's recommended 60-day timeline to turnaround cases. In its place is "no fixed time frame" for schools to complete an investigation.
USC Title IX Explained
This video helps explain the history of Title IX, options when reporting, and the process when going through a Title IX case at USC.
Dr. Sandra E. Hodgin, the founder of Title IX Consulting Group, stated campuses that want people to report will go above and beyond to educate people on their reporting system. These universities try to be as transparent as possible so that people know they can trust the system.
Hodgin stated universities that do the opposite generally do not bring awareness to who the coordinator is and are harsh with decisions.
"There's this weird cloud of mystery around them," she said.
When she heard about USC students' lack of knowledge about the office and fears of reporting, Hodgin said, "USC is purposely setting that up."
In 2014, USC was being investigated for their handling of sexual harassment and assault. After a five-year investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, USC said it would address the concerns, which included an incoherent timeframe for investigations and a lack of equal opportunity for both parties to include witnesses and evidence.
An ongoing case at USC sheds light on similar inefficiencies students are still experiencing with the Title IX Office. Many students say cases like these discourage them from reporting to USC.
Reagan S. was in Las Vegas on a USC fraternity weekend trip when she discovered a photograph of herself and two other students engaging in sexual activity was circulating among the fraternity.
The two female students in the photograph were both confident they never consented to take or share the image. The Title IX Office prohibits non-consensual observing, recording or sharing of the nudity or sexual activity of another student, so in April 2019, Reagan S. and Danielle Tudahl decided to co-file a report with the USC's Title IX Office.
Thus began a long, arduous experience for the two students. Thirteen months later, they are still fighting their case, with no end in sight.
In the middle of campus, tucked away behind Ronald Tutor Campus Center, the USC Title IX Office is located down in the basement of Stonier Hall.
When Tudahl failed to hear back from the office in April, she took it upon herself to go in and demand to be seen. She quickly discovered that the office had responded within a week to her initial report, but the email went directly to her spam folder.
Title IX investigators proceeded to interview 37 witnesses, review 104 pieces of evidence and conduct two evidence reviews with the parties over the next eight months.
During the investigation period, the respondent and reporting parties had the opportunity to read a file with all the evidence and witness interviews.
You go into the office, and for 4 hours you basically read a burn book about yourself.
- Danielle Tudahl
"You go into the office, and for 4 hours you basically read a burn book about yourself," explained Tudahl, comparing her experience to the movie Mean Girls. She was told she had no choice but to read it because any of the evidence could be brought up in the case.
When Tudahl began reading the investigation binder she noticed the majority of the questions were about her and included questions about her sexual history and reputation. Yet, there were no questions about Reagan or the respondent's sexual history or reputation.
Reagan described the binder as hundreds of pages of nasty gossip you would never want to hear.
She was pulled apart by other witnesses. I wouldn't want my worst enemy to go through what she went through.
- Reagan S.
"She was pulled apart by other witnesses. I wouldn't want my worst enemy to go through what she went through," said Reagan.
The case summary administrative review makes a statement about the use of sexual history as evidence. The office conveys that character or reputation regarding sexual activity is never relevant and will not be considered as evidence. This is then followed by, "sexual history may be relevant to establish motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, common scheme or plan, knowledge, identity, absence of mistake/accident."
Tudahl expressed her concerns with the investigation to the Title IX Coordinator Gretchen Dahlinger Means, stating she felt attacked.
All these questions are asking about my sexual history even though Title IX states that your sexual history has nothing to do with the outcome of the case.
- Danielle Tudahl
"All these questions are asking about my sexual history even though Title IX states that your sexual history has nothing to do with the outcome of the case," said Tudahl.
She also asked about the framing of the questions in her case. For example, rather than asking the witnesses, has the respondent ever sent you a photo of a girl before, why did they ask, have you ever seen a nude picture of Danielle Tudahl before?
Tudahl shared with Means that there were other non-consensual photos the respondent had taken of her and shared before. Means then explained the questions about her sexual history were to ensure this had never happened before and her other photos hadn't been sent around. However, Means also advised Tudahl not to report the other instances and instead to focus on this case.
I reached out to Means with the following questions.
1. How does the office decide whom to call in as witnesses and decide how many witnesses to call in (without risking losing confidentiality)?
2. How does the office decide what questions to ask the witnesses? If the office is investigating a sexual relationship, do they have to ask both parties about their sexual history? If so, why?
3. How long does a case take to investigate and are there any guidelines about the timeline of a decision?
USC said no one was available for an interview. The university provided the following statement instead.
"Discrimination and harassment have no place at USC. We do not tolerate behavior that violates our policy and take appropriate disciplinary action when it does.
The Title IX office at USC is responsible for responding to reports of harassment and discrimination based on any protected class, including issues involving biases against race, ethnicity, disability and religion.
Details about the process for investigating a complaint are posted on the Title IX website at: https://titleix.usc.edu
We are unable to talk about individual cases because of student privacy laws."
The USC Title IX website states, "A written, timely decision outlining the findings of fact and violation by the Title IX Office or adjudicator and any sanctions imposed by the Misconduct Sanctioning Panel."
Initially, the office said the investigation would be completed around August, 2019. They issued a decision on January 13th, 2020.
The report found the respondent photographed the sexual activity with the consent of both reporting parties. However, it also found that the respondent sent the photo in question to his roommate without Reagan's consent, but because Reagan agreed to the sexual activity during the incident, it is more likely that she agreed to other behavior outside her "norm," such as photographing sexual activity.
The night the photo was taken and distributed, Reagan described herself as drugged and under the influence of alcohol. She stated that she has no recollection of the events that occurred.
Tudahl also admits to having limited memory due to being intoxicated. A witness remembers Tudahl stumbling and slurring her words as she left the bar that night. The respondent himself also spoke to Tudahl's level of intoxication that night. He has chosen not to comment on the story.
California consent law requires an "affirmative consent" and states that consent can't be given if someone is asleep or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. USC, being a school in California, therefore, includes this definition of consent in its Title IX policy and procedures.
The summary report acknowledges that both Reagan and Tudahl were intoxicated when the incident occurred. It also states the respondent described himself as sober because he was preparing for a test the next day. However, when the Title IX adjudicator summarizes her reasoning for the decision, the report finds that his account of the night was more credible because of his state of mind.
Despite this, the Misconduct Sanctioning Panel found reasoning to issue a suspension for two semesters, Spring 2020 and Fall 2020, and the continuance of the avoidance of contact order.
"I felt like I had actually gotten some justice after fighting for so long," said Tudahl. "Maybe all of this was worth something."
I felt like I had actually gotten some justice after fighting for so long. Maybe all of this was worth something.
- Danielle Tudahl
The respondent chose to appeal. He submitted the appeal on the grounds that the photo was blurry and therefore couldn't show nudity, identifying information or sexual activity.
Months have passed since Reagan and Tudahl said they are still waiting for the university to let them know when a decision will be made. Since the ongoing appeal process went on for three months with no notification of a future decision date, the respondent continued his semester at USC.
Throughout this process, Reagan leaned on her close friend Dario Arganese, who was in the respondent's fraternity. Arganese supported her and helped her with every written piece she sent to Title IX.
Arganese believes the process hasn't been expedient and even more, it sets a precedent on campus for how unorganized and prolonged these cases will be.
This isn't something that any student at any university or anywhere in the world should have to deal with.
- Dario Arganese
"They're not able to mentally bare it," said Arganese. "This isn't something that any student at any university or anywhere in the world should have to deal with."
He remembers Reagan's experience losing communication with the office while waiting for months between correspondence. Then out of nowhere she'd receive an email with a new action item that she had to submit within the next few days.
"She was already stressed with school, dealing with midterms and assignments, and suddenly she'd have to hurdle over another obstacle with Title IX," he said.
Reagan said the case affected her student life. "I stopped going to all events, and I was in classes with witnesses who were called into the case."
Tudahl and Reagan's stress continued throughout the process and was visible during our interviews.
"And the fact that he's still here..." said Reagan, as she ducked her head down after seeing the respondent skateboard behind us in the USC Village.
During our interview, Tudahl had a similar reaction every time a skateboarder passed.
Tudahl apologized, "Sorry, whenever I hear a skateboard, I always think it's him."
Tudahl decided to take a temporary leave from school in the fall of 2019 amidst the case.
One in four female undergraduates across the country experience sexual assault during their time in college. At USC, it's one in three, according to the USC 2019 Report by the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. However, most assaults still go unreported.
Tudahl and Reagan's Title IX case influences other students on campus. When students hear about how the office handles these investigations, they are often discouraged from reporting their own.
Since filing the report with Title IX, Tudahl said, "Multiple girls said after what's happened to you, I'd never come forward. It's just not worth it."
When USC students were asked if they believe that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation in response to a report of sexual assault or other misconduct, 72.3% of female undergraduates and 50.9% male undergraduates said they believed it was very or extremely unlikely. This is one of the primary reasons students don't report.
Everyone who has talked to me says they'd never go through Title IX. And if it's serious enough, they'll go to the police because they'll handle it fairly
- Reagan S.
"Everyone who has talked to me says they'd never go through Title IX. And if it's serious enough, they'll go to the police because they'll handle it fairly," said Reagan.
Reagan also believes the timeline would be more prudent in a criminal case.
"If we were juniors when we filed our case, we would have graduated before the decision was made," she said.
Naomi Hyman, a current senior at USC, said she was raped freshman year and chose not to report to Title IX. New to campus, she felt uneducated about what would happen if she opened a case and feared her sorority would be kicked off the row.
"I felt the blame would've been put on me too because I was dressed like a freshman at a frat party," said Hyman. "I was drunk and consented to go home with the person. I then revoked my consent with the person very verbally and loudly, and he didn't stop."
Hyman said the main reason she didn't report was that she didn't think the university would take her seriously.
"I didn't get a rape kit. I just went home and cried after," said Hyman.
Since she didn't get a rape kit, she didn't think she had a case without evidence. The two people she knew who previously filed with Title IX had rape kits and were told that if they didn't, the case wouldn't go anywhere.
Some students said they didn't feel comfortable going all the way to Santa Monica - the closest rape treatment center - to get a test after such a traumatizing experience. There was a petition for USC to open up a rape-kit facility at Engemann Student Health Center, but ultimately the university said they didn't have the funds to create an effective center.
Another student called in as a witness to her friend's Title IX case, said after seeing the process, it makes sense why people wouldn't be willing to go through it.
"She just got dragged through the mud," she said.
Another student who initially went to Title IX after being sexually assaulted said he ultimately decided not to file a case for another reason: he felt too personally involved with the alleged assaulter and said the office didn't encourage him to report.
Not being believed was the hardest thing as a male. When I told my dad, he laughed. He thought I was joking.
- USC student
"Not being believed was the hardest thing as a male," he said. "When I told my dad, he laughed. He thought I was joking."
After his father's initial reaction, he felt even more discouraged and feared what others might think.
Many students believe the campus culture at USC endorses the idea that perpetrators will walk free. The cases are intended to be confidential, but as in Reagan and Tudahl's case, their story inevitably spread throughout their social circles and communities.
Hyman chose not to report for a similar reason. "I was scared because this kid is going to know I reported it and all his friends are going to know. It's a social thing," she said.
Elinor Haddad, a USC alumna, believes USC has the caliber and potential for change. With a solid campus structure that provides a home base for student organizations, she said USC needs to provide more funding for student social justice groups.
"It's a cultural thing," said Haddad. "I want the university to place more value into the cultural power and shift that is possible by investing in existing student organizations."
She said the cultural shift is possible because these organizations are not only vastly extensive, but they also have a cyclical effect.
USC has invested in resources and services, including Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services, and mandated online training for incoming students. However, if USC wants to improve the way the campus deals with sexual assault, the university has to go beyond awareness and focus on creating a cultural shift.
*Note: The Undergraduate Student Government approved a resolution to relocate the Title IX Office, citing the inaccessibility of its current temporary location off-campus on South Flower Street.