Utah State University removes leader of office that investigates sex discrimination after report reveals shortfalls

( Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune ) Old Main Building on the campus of Utah State University.

Utah State University has removed its Title IX coordinator two weeks after investigators found that school administrators had done little to address a “pervasive culture of sexism” and multiple assault allegations against faculty in the piano department.

In an email to students and faculty, university President Noelle Cockett said Scott Bodily will serve as the interim coordinator for the Title IX office, which handles complaints of assault and discrimination. Bodily had been working as an equal opportunity and affirmative action specialist at USU, and had previously worked as a detective with the Logan Police Department, according to the email.

Former Title IX Director Stacy Sturgeon is now listed on the school’s website as an affirmative action/equal opportunity specialist. She had been the director since 2014.

USU had previously promised, in 2016, to strengthen its Title IX enforcement and its handling of sexual misconduct complaints, in the wake of multiple rape allegations against former USU football player Torrey Green.

Its new vow of reform comes as the U.S. Department of Justice investigates its response to campus sexual assault, in a federal review announced in 2017.

It is not clear whether Sturgeon will remain a manager or oversee affirmative action complaints. Tim Vitale, a spokesman for USU, said he didn’t know the details of Sturgeon’s new position, saying, “Those are details that we’re still working through.”

In her email, Cockett told students the school will hire a permanent Title IX coordinator and additional staff, including a prevention specialist, in its Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Office.

“These changes will help us more effectively prevent future sexual misconduct and discrimination, thereby enhancing the safety of our campus,” Cockett said.

Until a new director is appointed, Vitale noted, the school will ask outside counsel to advise Bodily on investigations.

“There’s more work to do,” Vitale said Wednesday. “...All of us need to look in the mirror, dig deep down inside and say, ‘How do we make changes that will ensure the safety and well-being of our students?’ So this was a step — it’s been a week and a half out — and we’ll make other adjustments.”

An outside investigation found at the beginning of April that students in Utah State’s music department had faced a “pervasive culture” of sexism, and a “disturbing” pattern of sexual violence and psychological abuse by faculty.

Afterward, the school announced the retirement of head piano teacher Gary Amano and removed the interim piano program coordinator from that role. Another piano teacher, Dennis Hirst, is facing sanctions, but a USU spokesman said this week that the details of that had not yet been determined.

Among other measures announced: A new task force will investigate gender discrimination campuswide and the school will consider making it simpler to discipline faculty.

Title IX ‘did little’ despite complaints

The university hired Salt Lake City attorney Alan Sullivan in February to investigate alleged abuses in the piano department following a series of social media posts by former piano students who said they were harassed, bullied and assaulted while at USU.

He found that the music department and Title IX office, specifically, “did little to address the problem despite repeated opportunities.” At least seven complaints from piano students had reached the school’s sexual misconduct and discrimination investigators, according to Sullivan’s report.

At least three of the complaints were made while Sturgeon was heading the Title IX office.

• In 2015, a former piano student sent an email, which was forwarded to the Title IX office, describing sexism, favoritism and sexual misconduct in the department. She said scholarships were tampered with, and academic services like lessons and recitals were withheld from students under Amano’s leadership — complaints corroborated in Sullivan’s report. Sullivan’s review found no record that Title IX investigators forwarded the complaint to human resources officials, as the woman had requested.

• After that, another former student reported to the Title IX office that a piano teacher — who already had been accused of assault by at least one other student — had sexually assaulted her eight years earlier. Title IX investigators ruled the assault complaint was not substantiated but banned the man from further employment because he’d had sexual contact with students. In their notes, which Sullivan summarized, the investigators wrote that they feared Amano would retaliate against the woman and ordered him not to have contact with her.

• Retaliation concerns also were raised in 2017, when a group of piano students filed a Title IX complaint against Amano, alleging bullying, favoritism and sexism. Two of the students told The Salt Lake Tribune that Amano approached them trying to find out who had reported him to the school; those students said they told Title IX officers he appeared to be meddling in the investigation. The Title IX office did not provide any formal findings to those students, Sullivan wrote.

Amano was not disciplined. He retired April 2, less than a week before USU released Sullivan’s report, which recommended his termination.

A previous promise to improve

Sullivan’s findings about continuing flaws in Title IX’s work comes more than a year after USU announced it had taken steps to improve its handling of sexual assault cases.

Cockett, who oversaw the Title IX office while she was provost from 2013 through 2016, had chaired a task force responsible for devising a long-term strategy for dealing with sexual assault.

That work followed a series of controversies around sexual assault at USU.

In July 2016, four women told The Tribune they had been assaulted the previous year by Green, then a USU football star. All four women went to police, and three said they had turned to school officials for help.

Green told The Tribune that university officials approached him about one allegation; he apparently was not sanctioned and graduated in 2016. He has now been charged in seven sexual assault cases and at least 15 women have made allegations against him.

USU officials also received notice of a potential lawsuit alleging that the school had failed to take action against another student accused of raping multiple women.

Jason Relopez, formerly a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, had pleaded guilty to attempted rape and attempted forcible sex abuse in attacks on students in 2014 and 2015. USU suspended Relopez in July 2015, when former student Victoria Hewlett and another woman reported him to police.

But Hewlett’s eventual lawsuit said she later learned that other women had reported Relopez to school officials before he raped her. She argues the Title IX office mishandled allegations against Relopez, including after a meeting Title IX officials had with him in November 2014.

Relopez was banned from a fraternity event, and officials told him that “he was on USU’s radar.” He assaulted Hewlett less than a year later.

In the summer of 2016, USU announced it was doing a “comprehensive review of how it handles sexual assault cases. Later that year, it created committees and adopted protocols that it said would improve its response.

USU clarified its policies on confidentiality of student reports and amnesty from discipline over drug or alcohol violations, and launched public awareness campaigns.

That outreach appears to have had more success than the efforts to change institutional responses, said student Bronte Forsgren, who runs an online group focusing on women’s issues at USU.

“There’s been a lot of good student education about sexual assault in general and especially about consent,” Forsgren said.

“I think we’re developing toward a culture where we talk about this more than we used to,” agreed student Katie Miner. “... I do definitely think that there seem to be more problems reporting things that don’t ever get resolved at Utah State than at other universities. … Something seems to be going wrong at Utah State that isn’t going wrong in other universities.”