A former Utah State University student described her rape and the school’s response on Facebook. Now the school is investigating.
( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Utah State University's Old Main Building. The school has asked an outside attorney to investigate reports of sexual assault and harassment in its music department, after students posted accounts on Facebook.
Logan • Utah State University’s president assured students Friday that there will be a thorough investigation after several former students posted allegations this week on social media of systemic sexual violence and harassment within its music program — including a report that a piano faculty instructor raped a student in 2009.
Noelle E. Cockett, who was out of town, spoke to about 50 music students and faculty in a video chat, telling them that the recently surfaced reports are a concern — and that student safety is a top priority.
“Not only are we investigating the concerns that students have raised about sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying, etc.,” she said, “we are also investigating whether or not the university acted appropriately in 2009. … If we discover during this investigation that we are not doing enough or we are not acting appropriately, change will occur.”
The school already is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice after a series of high-profile sexual assault prosecutions of students.
In a Feb. 13 Facebook post, Whitney McPhie Griffith, a former USU piano performance student, said she was raped by a faculty member in spring 2009 in off-campus housing and recounted how her life fell apart. The post has been widely shared, drawing supportive comments as well as complaints from other former USU music students of sexual harassment and mishandled reports.
Griffith said Thursday that she’s been overwhelmed by the response, which has included people who told her they had similar experiences at USU and thought they were the only one.
“I thought I was alone, too, for so long,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It has been so empowering and rather remarkable, and I feel really honored to be a part of this.”
USU spokesman Tim Vitale said Thursday that the Facebook posts “raised serious concerns, which we are looking into,” noting that the school has contracted with an outside attorney to investigate the allegations.
Cockett recommended hiring the lawyer to review the allegations from “a perspective outside of our own walls,” Vitale said.
In the chat, Cockett told students that Salt Lake City-based attorney Alan Sullivan will conduct the investigation, which she expects will take at least eight weeks. The findings will not be delivered to her, Cockett told students, but to another Salt Lake City attorney, who will review the report.
The students at Friday’s meeting were attentive while Cockett spoke, but did not ask many questions of the university president.
Camille Weber, a senior who is studying piano, said after the meeting that she felt it was helpful that the president spoke with students directly. She said the current music department staff have also been supportive in recent days.
“I just wish there was that kind of support when these things happened,” she said.
Weber said she hopes the investigation will spur more changes at the university, adding that she’s discouraged by other reports that have surfaced of USU mishandling sexual assault complaints since she began studying in Logan in 2012.
“I hope there’s enough change,” she said. “I don’t feel safe here yet.”
Griffith, who now lives in California, wrote in her post that she fell into a deep depression and initially didn’t tell anyone of the rape, which she said happened in April or May 2009. Four months later, she said, she reported it to the university’s Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information (SAAVI) office and its Title IX department.
She asserts the instructor was reprimanded but not fired. She suffered “debilitating” anxiety, she wrote, after she learned of other piano students who said they were assaulted. Eventually, she left Logan and “rebuilt” her life “outside of the piano world,” she wrote.
“In the past nine years, I’ve spoken with the SAAVI office, Title IX, law enforcement, three attorneys, and the US Department of Justice both ‘officially’ (formal report filed) and more ‘off the record’/for guidance and consultation,” she wrote.
She said Thursday that she shared her story because she felt she reported her case “the right way” with the university and hasn’t seen any significant change.
Amy Arakelyan, another former USU student, characterized the music department as a “toxic environment characterized by thinly veiled misogyny and emotional manipulation” in a Feb. 10 Facebook post detailing her experiences.
“It’s always just been this little rain cloud that I’ve carried,” Arakelyan told The Tribune on Friday. “And it’s been 10 years, and I’m a mom now and I think of those students up there and how scared I felt and how helpless I felt. I felt so strongly that I had to say something.”
Like Griffith, Arakelyan said in her post that recent public accounts of sexual assault spurred her to tell her story.
In her post, Arakelyan wrote that her private faculty instructor would sometimes “sit too close” to her and “make comments” about her appearance. After learning she was in a relationship with another student in the program, who is now her husband, the piano faculty “blacklisted” her, she said, and threatened him with deportation if he didn’t end their relationship.
Like Griffith, Arakelyan said she tried multiple avenues to resolve the harassment — including contacting the head of the music department, the counseling center and, years later, the dean. Still, she said, none has faced significant consequences, pointing to the continued employment.
Arakelyan, who lives in Indiana, said Friday that she didn’t expect her post to reach so many people. While most of the reaction has been positive, she said, it’s also been “really heavy” hearing from other USU music students who shared similar experiences with her.
Arakelyan said that after she shared her story publicly, USU’s Title IX coordinator reached out and interviewed both her and her husband. She said she feels encouraged by the school’s response so far.
“Maybe I’m naive,” she said, “but I’m feeling hopeful that some positive changes can finally be made.”
In a comment on the university’s music Facebook page, department head Cindy Dewey noted the school no longer employs Griffiths’ alleged assaulter. She encouraged others to contact the Title IX office with information that would be helpful as the university follows up on issues identified by former students.
Vitale said the university has taken “clear and numerous” steps to change policies around sexual assault. “It’s not to undervalue any of the claims people are making on Facebook posts,” he said. “That’s something we will look at closely and take very seriously.”
USU officials have been accused of mishandling a number of rape reports in recent years, including the cases of two fraternity members who were later charged with several sexual assaults and former USU football player Torrey Green, who is accused of sexually assaulting seven women
while he was a student in Logan between 2013 and 2015. His cases are still pending.
USU’s internal investigation revealed that the school “fell short” in handling reports related to Green. In January, the U.S. Department of Justice notified the school it was investigating how USU has handled numerous reports of student-on-student sexual assaults, focusing on cases between 2013 and 2016.
Griffith said she hopes speaking out will encourage others to tell their stories, too, when they’re ready.
“With everything I have gone through and experienced, the least I can do is try to encourage others to tell their stories,” Griffith wrote. “There is so much strength in numbers. We’ve been silenced for too long.”