Justice Department says Utah State mishandled sexual assault reports — often leaving ‘additional students vulnerable’

(Tribune file photo) Pictured is Old Main on campus at Utah State University in Logan.

Utah State University repeatedly mishandled cases of sexual assault on campus, failing to investigate when it knew about misconduct and, as a result, “rendered additional students vulnerable,” the Department of Justice said Wednesday in a damning report concluding a three-year investigation into the school.

The documents, which were released by USU, include heavy redactions but show that the northern Utah university has agreed to a legal settlement with the federal agency, pledging to improve its response in the future.

The DOJ wrote in its findings that previously: “Severe sexual harassment, including rapes and other forcible sexual assaults, went unaddressed and students who were subjected to sexual harassment often suffered negative academic, mental health, and social consequences, including withdrawal from their classes or from the University altogether.”

The university received 240 reports of sexual harassment over nearly five years, beginning in 2013, but it processed fewer than 25 in accordance with its Title IX procedures. Title IX is a federal law that charges universities with ensuring students receive education without sex-based discrimination.

The DOJ noted that it uncovered “significant failures” in how the university responded to complaints, and the report largely focused on USU’s treatment of football players, fraternities and its music department — all of which had high-profile cases of sexual assault and misconduct in recent years. And at least three Utah State students have been convicted of sexual assaults that occurred between 2013 and 2015.

USU President Noelle Cockett responded to the report Wednesday with a statement, noting the school is committed to promptly addressing reports of misconduct, as well as trying to prevent assaults from happening by adding more student and staff training.

“Utah State should have done better,” said Cockett, who was not president at the time of the assaults but did hold a position in university leadership. “I should have done better.”

The review by the Justice Department, which began in early 2017, came after its civil rights division said it had learned of multiple allegations of “student-on-student and employee-on-student” rape and harassment at the northern Utah school — including two previously unreported accounts involving football program staffers.

The inquiry focused on all cases reported between January 2013 and October 2017. It is rare for the DOJ to lead this type of investigation, and its involvement usually points to more serious, systemic issues across a community — which the department said it found at USU.

‘Minimal investigation’

The 20-page DOJ report is redacted, with large chunks of text blacked out to protect student privacy. No individual students are listed by name in the document, but investigators did note shortfalls in several departments that have been in the news over the years after allegations of sexual assault or harassment became public.

Investigators also conducted 60 interviews with students, staff and community members. They found that it was common for USU to close incident files involving football players after “only minimal investigation.”

The university received more than 15 reports of alleged sexual assault involving USU football players during that five-year period. And there were at least two allegations against football program staff accused of sexual misconduct — one of sexual assault and the other of sexual harassment.

There were “several players” accused of multiple incidents of sexual misconduct, according to the report. Names were redacted, which the school said was for privacy reasons.

In the case of former football player Torrey Green, four women told Logan police in 2015 that they had been assaulted by him. But originally no charges were filed and he was not questioned about two of the reports. After The Salt Lake Tribune reported the complaints, other victims came forward.

Green told The Tribune that USU officials had spoken to him about one, but did not elaborate.

(Chantelle McCall | The Utah Statesman) Torrey Green looks back at his family after receiving a 26-year-to-life prison sentence. Green was found guilty of eight charges, including five counts of rape and a charge sexual battery in connection to reports from six women accusing him of sexual assault while he was a football player at Utah State University, Wednesday, Mar. 27, 2019 in Brigham City, Utah.

A jury convicted Green last March of eight charges in connection with reports from six women who say the athlete sexually abused them as early as in 2013 when he was a student at the Logan school.

The DOJ report also detailed mishandled reports involving its Greek system. Investigators say that senior administrators met with fraternities and sororities in 2015 to discuss various misconduct incidents, and suspended two fraternities’ privileges to serve alcohol and recruit new members during that school year.

But the university allowed those sanctions to expire the following year, according to the report, “sending the message that the university did not take seriously the hostile environment that continued to exist within USU’s Greek community.”

Former USU student Victoria Hewlett sued the school for allegedly mishandling sexual assault allegations from her and multiple other women involving then-Sigma Chi fraternity member Jason Relopez. The lawsuit claimed that five women had reported to the school that Relopez sexually assaulted them before Hewlett’s attack in 2015. The school said Relopez had been on its “radar” but denied receiving five previous assault reports.

Relopez was sentenced in 2016 to a year in jail for attempted rape and attempted forcible sex abuse, and as part of his plea deal, admitted raping Hewlett and another USU student.

The Tribune generally does not identify sexual assault victims, but Hewlett has agreed to the use of her name. She accepted a $250,000 settlement in 2018 that required the school to increase its oversight of its Greek system.

Her case also noted allegations involving a third student. The school, she said, mishandled similar reports involving Ryan Wray, then-president of Pi Kappa Alpha, which is around the corner from Sigma Chi.

Prosecutors said Wray inappropriately touched a woman at the fraternity in 2014, while he was assigned to keep watch over incapacitated partygoers who couldn’t take care of themselves. He pleaded guilty to attempted forcible sex abuse and was sentenced to six months in jail.

The DOJ report also made a brief mention of the university’s investigation into its piano department, noting that those who came forward with years-old complaints in 2018 did not know where to report discrimination during their time at USU. School investigators found that year that administrators had done little to address a “pervasive culture of sexism” amid multiple allegations of mistreatment by faculty in the piano department as recently as 2017. That included a student alleging she was raped by a teacher in 2009.

Federal investigators further noted in the DOJ report that there was “poor, ineffective coordination” between departments at USU. Housing and Residence employees would offer services to those who reported harassment, for example, but never notified the Title IX office about the allegations.

Similarly, the on-campus police department would investigate crimes, but did not alert Title IX officials. This led to students routinely not receiving all of the services and support that was available, as well as other students being victimized because the school didn’t see pattern.

The report noted: “The university’s failure to respond appropriately to sexual harassment and assault subjected dozens of students to further sexual harassment.”

A settlement requires change

The university conducted its own investigation into some of the allegations starting in 2016. And it has already begun to make some of the changes required as part of the settlement with the Justice Department.

“While we have done much to improve, I know that doesn’t undo the impact of our past systemwide failures,” said Cockett, USU’s president. “To those affected, I personally apologize.”

She pledged to “expand [the school’s] ongoing efforts to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct” and “correct the gaps and shortcomings in our processes.”

The settlement agreement, signed Wednesday, has been negotiated since October. It will require the school to ensure it is properly responding to new cases. When fully implemented, the deal will resolve the DOJ investigation.

Its first and chief tenet is a formal requirement for USU to “respond promptly, equitably, and adequately to known sexual harassment that has created a hostile environment.” Federal monitoring of that will continue through the 2022-2023 school year, with semi-annual reports submitted by Utah State listing each report of assault and the university’s response. The school is also expected to watch for repeat offenders.

Utah State will also be tasked with revising all of its policies regarding harassment and nondiscrimination, how it investigates cases and how offenders are disciplined. The school says that it has already begun to do that, along with other efforts to address misconduct.

(Joy Wong | For The Salt Lake Tribune) Rachel Speedie at her home in Redondo Beach, Calif. Speedie won piano competitions at Utah State University and was named the school’s most outstanding music student her junior year, but she left Logan in 2004 with a permanent elbow injury and no degree. She says she was required to overpractice, not given lessons she had paid for and denied the opportunity to play her required senior recital.

After the allegations arose with its piano department, for instance, the school removed the coordinator over its Title IX office, which handles complaints of assault and discrimination. The settlement mandates that the school ensures the individuals now leading that office “receive adequate training, resources, and support necessary to coordinate these efforts effectively.” For at least three years, the investigation found, there was no central person in that role.

The DOJ acknowledges the improvements the school has already made, noting USU has “proactively taken steps to strengthen its prevention of and response to sexual harassment and assault.” In return, the department has promised not to pursue a lawsuit against the school for its Title IX shortcomings.

The conditions, though, also encompass changes the school has not made. That includes requiring all campus police reports to include the USU clubs or sports teams implicated (if any) and whether the university opened an investigation or its reason for not doing so.

Starting this fall, the school must also provide in-person trainings on harassment and consent for all incoming students attending one of its three campuses. It currently does not do that. Students will also have to complete an online training every year. Right now, that’s just done once, when they enroll.

All employees working with Title IX investigations will be trained annually, as well. And the school will conduct yearly campus climate surveys to see how well students understand where to find resources.

“No student should feel unsafe because of a school’s failure to address sexual violence and its devastating impacts,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband in a statement on the settlement. “We look forward to working with USU to implement this agreement and to ensure that students can learn in a safe and healthy environment.”

If USU fails to uphold its end at any point, the DOJ can take legal action.

A Justice Department investigation differs from and is more serious than a typical Title IX review of a school, which is usually conducted by the Department of Education. The Department of Education has more than 300 Title IX reviews underway nationwide, but there are few Title IX investigations by Department of Justice officials.

Five other Utah universities have been or are currently being evaluated by the Department of Education for potential Title IX violations: Westminster College, the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Dixie State University and Utah Valley University. Westminster was cleared of wrongdoing.

Editor’s note: If you need to report or discuss a sexual assault, you can call the Rape & Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100. The Utah Department of Health has other resources for rape survivors at https://bit.ly/2msvaoJ.