Ohio State closes sexual-assault center, fires 4 after complaints
By Jennifer Smola
June 19, 2018
|The Ohio State University seal at the East entrance to the Oval.|
Photo by Doral Chenoweth III
Ohio State University will permanently close its Sexual Civility and Empowerment unit amid concerns that it failed to properly report students’ sexual-assault complaints and that some victims were told they were lying or suffering from delusions.
The university also is eliminating four positions that fell under the unit, known as SCE, and terminating those employees.
A team of independent auditors is helping to review SCE files to ensure Ohio State has fulfilled its obligations to report certain offenses to law enforcement, federal regulators and other authorities, according to the university.
Documents obtained by The Dispatch through a public records request detail a variety of complaints about Ohio State’s SCE and its leadership.
In one document, the OhioHealth Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio, or SARNCO, outlined a list of concerns with SCE and its treatment of survivors. That document indicated that some survivors were subjected to victim-blaming, unethical and re-traumatizing treatment by SCE advocates. Some victims were told they were lying or delusional, suffered from mental illness, had an active imagination, didn’t understand their own experience or fabricated their story, according to SARNCO’s concerns.
SARNCO also wrote that it had received reports that SCE advocates have written student conduct and other legal documents, and have told survivors they needed to embellish their stories because “their real experience wasn’t serious enough” to receive justice or legal protection.
Some survivors reportedly were told they wouldn’t receive support from SCE because they weren’t credible, were not “ready to heal,” or because they would not disclose the identity of a perpetrator, the network said.
“At OhioHealth SARNCO, our mission is ‘To Empower All Survivors: To End Sexual Violence,‘” SARNCO manager Heather Herron Murphy said in a statement to The Dispatch on Tuesday. “If we receive information about survivors’ needs not being met, or survivors’ concerns not being heard, we work to amplify those voices.”
Another document from a former SCE employee criticized the leadership of Natalie Spiert, assistant director of SCE, and Karen Kyle, director of the Student Advocacy Center. The former employee said she was frequently discouraged from working with campus community partners, including the Title IX office, Student Conduct, Health and Wellness Center, and Counseling and Consultation Services, among others. The employee also described Spiert as exaggerating her credentials, openly disavowing the use of advocate best practices, and training SCE hires to do the same.
The findings of the external review of SCE have spurred a university-wide review of its federal Title IX practices. Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination in education based on gender, has helped ensure that women have an equal opportunity in athletics, but more recently has been used in efforts to curb sexual misconduct on campuses.
Ohio State has engaged experts from the Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O’Connor to conduct an evaluation of its policies and help create a new and redesigned model to support victims of sexual assault, the university said Tuesday.
Ohio State began investigating SCE in February 2016 through an Office of Student Life human resources review, leading to additional independent reviews of the unit’s structural and reporting issues. The university suspended SCE in February, amid the latest ongoing external review, completed May 28, and concerns that it was not properly supporting victims.
The closure resulted in pushback from students and survivors seeking action from the university to provide survivors with resources. An April letter signed by nearly 60 student organizations called for the university to provide a centralized and personalized resource for survivors of sexual violence.
The university said Tuesday it will reach out to students who have been in contact with SCE to ensure they have received necessary support services.
“Ohio State will do all that we can to be a national leader in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct,” Ohio State President Michael V. Drake said in a statement. “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.”
Rules for reporting sexual assaults on campus can be complex.
Even if a student doesn’t want to go to law enforcement about a sexual assault, Title IX and Clery Act policies indicate colleges who receive Title IX funding must report at least some information about sexual assaults that occur on campus, or through an off-campus educational program or activity of the school. Most university employees are responsible for reporting such incidents, but mental-health or pastoral counselors and psychologists have a confidentiality exemption and typically aren’t required to report any information regarding sexual assaults.
Sometimes, federal and local laws clash when it comes to reporting sex crimes to law enforcement. The Violence Against Women Act stipulates that educational programs must provide victims of sexual violence on campus information about their options regarding law enforcement, including a victim’s choice to either notify proper law-enforcement officials or decline to notify them. At the same time, Ohio law requires a person to report to law enforcement if they know that a felony has been committed.
Indications that SCE failed to adequately comply with policy requirements appear to cover a range of sexual-assault incidents, Ohio State says. Some appear to have occurred off campus or in other cities or before the survivor was enrolled at the university. But other on-campus incidents weren’t properly reported to police or to the university in a timely fashion.
SCE was established in 2015 as part of a larger university plan, dubbed Buckeyes ACT, to combat sexual misconduct and relationship violence. On its website, SCE’s mission is described as “inspiring students to intervene, heal, and interrupt patterns of personal behavior.” SCE worked to implement prevention initiatives and advocacy support for survivors of sexual violence and reduce all forms of sexual misconduct, its website said.
With SCE’s closure, students can seek support through the university’s Counseling and Consultation Service, Student Advocacy Center, Student Wellness Center and Student Health Services, as well as SARNCO and the Mount Carmel Crime and Trauma Assistance Program.
“This is an immensely important issue, and Ohio State is committed to having the very best systems in place to support and protect our students, faculty and staff,” Bruce McPheron, Ohio State executive vice president and provost, said in an emailed statement Tuesday.