USC

Privacy, secrecy and scandal: Inside USC’s handling of Title IX cases

Where the university falls short in addressing and preventing sexual assault.

A photo of the USC Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX

Editor’s note: Two days after the publication of this article, the university announced that the EEO-TIX office will be moving to a new location in March. Additional context from that email has been added where noted.

Corrections: In a previous version of this story, the date of departure for both Jody Shipper and Gretchen Gaspari were incorrect. They have since been updated.

When you walk into the USC Credit Union building on the corner of Flower and 37th St, several blocks away from USC’s main campus, you’re greeted by a shiny silver, embossed sign directing you to the important offices in the building.

However, at the very bottom of the sign, printed on plain white printer paper with a font half the size as the signage above: “Floor 2: The Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity, and Title IX (EEO-TIX).”

The incomplete attempt at the EEO-TIX label shows just how busy the office has been in the recent past.

USC has been hit by a spate of heavily publicized lawsuits, including Title IX violations by the Song Girls head coach, a Marshall professor accused of sexually assaulting his student assistants, a campus doctor reportedly sexually abusing gay and bisexual men. Investigations are still ongoing into the class-action lawsuit involving George Tyndall, and, most recently, sexual assault and date rape drug allegations made against the Sigma Nu fraternity.

Michael Bodie, associate professor of the practice of cinematic arts and a steering committee member for the USC Concerned Faculty group, likens USC’s EEO-TIX office to a corporate human resources department. He expressed concern that because these officials are embedded and hired by the university, that a question of loyalty and conflict of interest arises.

“What is the reporting structure within the organization and who oversees it?” asked Bodie. “Because that’s where you can see where it’s probably ripe for corrupt practices. Is it protecting the student who’s reporting or is it protecting the institution from liability?”

Title IX is a federal law that “protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.” And though it is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, most universities have the discretion of hiring their own employees for their Title IX offices.

Job postings for investigator and director positions can be found on LinkedIn and USC’s own career website.

And just as the poorly made Credit Union directory signals, the university’s human resources department and EEO-TIX office are housed on the same floor of the Credit Union building, sharing front desks just feet from each other.

In an email to Annenberg Media after the initial publication of this article, the university said the office of EEO-TIX is directly within the Division of Human Resources, Ethics, and Compliance.

Though the EEO-TIX office was not created until August 2020 to replace the previous Title IX office, the questionable history of the leaders of Title IX at USC calls into question the university’s attentiveness to issues including sexual assault and harassment.

Former Title IX director Jody Shipper stepped down in 2015. The reasons for her departure are unclear, but in a federal investigation, the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education found that USC mishandled serial sexual abuse of students during Shipper’s tenure.

Shipper’s successor, Gretchen Gaspari, resigned in June 2020. Following her departure, she was accused by a student, Courtney Whittier, of biasing investigations and retaliating against an attorney for reporting that her husband was convicted of misusing graphic photographs of another woman.

Whittier’s lawsuit against Gaspari and the university alleged that USC violated Title IX and discriminated against her in favor of her alleged rapist.

“[USC] literally, intentionally predetermined the outcome of [Whittier’s] complaint before the investigation was even done,” said Alex Zalkin, a USC alumnus and Whittier’s attorney in the case, in an interview with Annenberg Media.

The current director at the EEO-TIX office is Catherine Spear, who served as the Title IX director at Stanford during the infamous Brock Turner rape case, the travel ban on Stanford’s marching band and the adoption of a policy that states sexual assault will result in expulsion.

In Spear’s short time in the position, the university has come under fire for its “troubling delay” in addressing sexual assault and drugging allegations at fraternity Sigma Nu.

Over the course of seven months reporting the story, Annenberg Media shared questions and anecdotes and the university only shared general statements referencing student privacy, not directly addressing long delays in the process.

Natalia Parraz, a senior studying international relations and nongovernmental organizations and social change, expressed concern about the lack of transparency by the university and the EEO-TIX office, which makes it difficult for students to trust reporting their assaults.

Parraz, who also serves as the president of Flow, has been working closely with the university this past semester to address issues of sexual assault. Flow is an “intersectional feminist organization” that aims to create solution-oriented conversations about gender, race, sexuality and how they intersect.

“People don’t trust Title IX to begin with because of previous cases and USC’s history with scandals,” said Parraz. “Survivors are being demotivated by so many different things that we can’t even get them to want to come report.”

In order to file a formal complaint with the EEO-TIX office, USC students and faculty must either call, email, mail or visit the office in person, according to the “Get Help with Reporting” section on the EEO-TIX website.

For some victims, this may be more intimidating than filling out an online form. Parraz said that Flow and other student organizations have been pressuring the university to create a centralized online reporting system for EEO-TIX specifically to make victims feel more comfortable coming forward.

“They tell us that they’re working on a lot of things, and the only thing keeping them on track is our organizations that will meet with them and ask if they’ve done it yet,” said Parraz. “And they just say that they’re working on it. There’s no enforcement of students getting these resources.”

Parraz is working with Callisto, a nonprofit that creates technology to combat sexual assault, empower survivors, and advance justice to make their services known to students. Callisto has previously worked with USC, but the university did not renew the contract.

Callisto says it offers three services that the EEO-TIX does not: an online reporting system, a matching system to track repeat offenders and other resources for survivors.

Following the publication of this article, USC said that it does have a centralized web reporting system where anonymous or identified complaints can be filed.

Report.usc.edu is the site with all the information,” said a university representative. “This portal also allows the university to respond with important information about resources and reporting options, even to anonymous reports, and the data is triaged and tracked for patterns, such as multiple reports about the same person.”

However, this reporting website cannot be found in the EEO-TIX “Get Help” tab. Instead, it is hosted on the website for the Office of Professionalism and Ethics, a separate office from EEO-TIX. According to the website, relevant complaints will be forwarded to the EEO-TIX office. This reporting system allows reporters to identify “practices or conduct that do not meet the ethical and professional standard of the university.”

“To be frank, Callisto would not exist if there were not any challenges and shortcomings within the Title IX process nationally, now and historically,” said Sarayfah Bolling, director of programs and strategic engagement at Callisto. “We were created by survivors, for survivors who have felt invisible, silenced, dehumanized, and betrayed by the institutions who have promised to protect them.”

For those who do file formal complaints with the office, a new set of challenges arise.

The USC EEO-TIX’s website says that its mission is to “promptly and appropriately address reports of discrimination and harassment based on protected characteristics and related retaliation.” Yet, several students have found that their experience does not adhere to the office’s “strict standards.”

In a lawsuit filed at the LA County Court on June 22, Jane Doe, a former USC student, alleges

USC failed to meet its Title IX obligations in her sexual assault case. She reported to the EEO-TIX office that she was sexually assaulted, abused and raped at the hands of another USC student, Mark Rabinowitz, in March 2018. Doe claims that she reported the incident to USC’s EEO-TIX later that month and did not receive any correspondence about the case until April 2020.

According to the lawsuit, a representative from Title IX contacted Doe in April 2020 to inform her that they were aware of the case and asked if she wanted to proceed with an investigation. Doe said in the lawsuit she received no information about why there had been such a delay in contacting her.

Over two years after the initial reporting, Rabinowitz was charged with violating USC’s Student Conduct Code, according to the lawsuit. And, in July 2021, over three years after the initial reporting, USC determined that there was “sufficient evidence” that Rabinowitz committed sexual assault and “non-consensual sexual contact,” the lawsuit states.

According to the Resolution Process for Sexual Misconduct outline provided on the EEO-TIX website, the vice president for EEO-TIX may dismiss a formal complaint if “the Respondent is no longer enrolled or employed by the University.”

Rabinowitz was a senior in 2020 and had already graduated from the university when the EEO-TIX office found him responsible for sexually assaulting Doe. Because the policy was put into place after the case against Rabinowitz was filed, dismissal would not have been possible in this situation.

However, for cases filed after Aug. 2020, according to the resolution process, the vice president of EEO-TIX can decide to drop cases if the accused assaulter or harassers graduate and leave the university.

It is unclear if Rabinowitz was ever accused, charged or convicted of the crime outside of the USC process for students. Attempts to locate him were unsuccessful.

Shawna Nazari, Doe’s lawyer, wrote in the lawsuit that she believes that another student’s report of sexual assault by Rabinowitz prompted the office to investigate the March 2018 assault, rather than addressing it with immediate urgency after the initial report. This raised the concern that failing to address reported cases in a timely manner may result in alleged assaulters acting again.

When asked about the stall in its investigations process, the university said that the current resolution time is 60 to 90 days but that “time can vary based on a number of factors, such as the nature and number of potential policy violations under investigation and extensions of time to accommodate the availability of parties and witnesses to ensure a comprehensive and thorough investigation.”

Doe’s case isn’t the only one that has required extra pressure in order to receive results.

Professor Carol Wise said that it takes more than just filing a complaint with the office to see action.

Wise, an associate professor of international relations, has been helping students file Title IX cases for years and said she often has to push employees in the office directly to make sure the cases were being “properly handled.”

“I have to threaten, cajole and push [to get these cases seen],” said Wise in an interview with Annenberg Media in July 2021. “And I understand why these young women don’t want to file a formal complaint, because I mean it is stacked against you. Nobody cares.”

USC did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the matter.

The lawsuit filed against former USC gynecologist George Tyndall claims that women reported Tyndall over the course of 30 years without recourse from the university. Action was not taken until the LA Times published an investigation into Tyndall in 2018.

After the investigation became public, the U.S. Department of Education’s Campus Safety and Security program documented 156 reported cases of rape, statutory rape and fondling at USC in 2018, an over 600% rise from the previous year.

Some cases to EEO-TIX originate from USC’s Department of Public Safety (DPS), which allows for cases to be reported at any time of the victims choosing. Cases reported to DPS are then relayed to the EEO-TIX, who will reach out to the reporter to see if they are interested in filing a formal complaint.

It is not clear whether this increase in reports is due to an increase in cases or due to the Tyndall investigation becoming public, but many, like Wise, believe that seeing a positive response to the investigation inspired many women to report their cases.

The same can be said about the recent Sigma Nu allegations. Following the first protests, the DPS crime logs saw an increase in sexual assault reports.

According to statistics provided by interim DPS Chief David Carlisle, DPS reported double the number of sex offenses in October and November than any other month in the Fall 2021 semester.

“I think seeing the online and the offline support really empowered survivors to be like, okay, if not for me, I’m reporting so someone else doesn’t have the same thing happen to them,” said Parraz.

Bolling repeated the sentiment, saying that Callisto has found that “there is power in numbers and survivors are more likely to pursue reporting when they feel supported by their chosen community.”

Following nationwide issues with Title IX, former United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos made changes within the investigation guidelines in order to ensure a “judicial-like process” and emphasize due process. Previously, there had been concerns that those falsely accused of sexual assault or harassment were not given fair trials.

However, USC’s past has made it clear that the issue doesn’t lie with what critics say is a lack of due process and false reports. Instead, as activists have shared, the issue lies with the lack of urgency and importance that the office approaches Title IX cases with.

“Office of Equity and Diversity is still a joke, nothing ever happens there,” said Wise. “They’ve said they’ve revamped it and they’ve done this and they did that. But they didn’t. I mean, you can really get away with a lot of racism and a lot of sexism and a lot of harassment at this university.”

The university did not respond to requests for the number of officers currently employed at the EEO-TIX office. The office’s website reports 27 employees with 12 employees on the investigative team.

The EEO-TIX office also does not make its investigative reports publicly available.

The university said in an email sent following publication that FERPA “prohibits the university from making investigative reports and disciplinary outcomes against specific students available publicly.” However, FERPA expressly exempts and does not prohibit disclosure of the final results of disciplinary proceedings and investigations against students who have been accused of serious crimes, including sex crimes and crimes of violence, according to the Student Press Law Center.

Bodie and the Concerned Faculty Group have had repeated concerns about the university’s timely communication with the community, as well as the clarity and transparency in the EEO-TIX process.

“I can appreciate that, of course, there are places where you can’t just suddenly publish all of the information all the time right away,” said Bodie. “But it seems to be the case that in a lot of ways we’re not even getting the results of investigations or information that’s been maybe redacted even after the fact.”

In a statement to Annenberg Media, the university said that “federal law requires the university to keep information about investigations confidential to protect student privacy.” However, it is not clear what specific information is required to be kept confidential.

For cases like Jane Doe’s and the recent Sigma Nu sexual assault and date rape allegations, protecting identities may not be beneficial to the community as a whole.

“So many of these [assaulters] are repeat offenders,” said Parraz. “How many people could they have affected [if the community isn’t made aware]?”

Bodie and Parraz say protecting a student’s privacy by keeping information private might allow the alleged assaulter to act again.

“There has to be something between never sharing and oversharing,” said Bodie. “There has to be somewhere on that continuum that we can land at that will make people feel like again we’re protected and safe. Like the university and these offices are actually on the side of the students and the staff and faculty.”