At the University of Oregon, a 2014 scandal involving three basketball players was the tipping point that led to sweeping change across campus.
Oregon officials had already been discussing ways to revamp the school’s Title IX program since the 2011 issuance of President Barack Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter, which outlined how universities should respond to allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and dating violence. But when national news outlets picked up the story about how Damyean Dotson, Dominic Artis and Brandon Austin were all allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament despite being accused of gang-raping another student, Oregon officials jumped to action.
“There was a lot of focus on Title IX after that for a lot of reasons,” said Darci Heroy, Oregon’s chief civil rights officer and Title IX coordinator.
Between 2015 and 2017, Oregon reported that 113 Title IX complaints were filed against students in connection with allegations of sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual exploitation, sexual coercion, stalking or retaliation, according to data provided to ESPN last fall. Of those complaints, 13 were levied against athletes, accounting for 11.5 percent of the total complaints. Student-athletes at Oregon make up 1.9 percent of the student body.
In 2015, Oregon reported three complaints against student-athletes, according to the data provided to ESPN. In 2016, that number increased to eight and in 2017, the school reported two complaints against athletes.
With several lawsuits by former students pushing Title IX to center stage at the University of Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star partnered with Solutions Journalism Network to analyze efforts by several universities to improve their enforcement of the federal law designed to prevent gender inequity, including sexual harassment and violence. The Star chose to focus on Oregon because it had a spike in complaints against athletes, followed by a decline.
Following the basketball scandal, Oregon launched a president’s review panel, a Faculty Senate task force and a student life gap analysis to re-examine its policies and programs surrounding Title IX. Heroy, who was an investigator at the time, came on board to help implement recommendations from the reports. In 2016, she started working as Oregon’s Title IX coordinator, reporting directly to the school’s president.
In her new role, Heroy helped implement a system in which the first point of contact for a student who discloses a potential Title IX violation is a confidential staff member who isn’t obligated to disclose information shared by the student. Heroy said this was a way of working with the existing blanket reporting policies that a lot of institutions — including Oregon — had in place at the time.
“There’s always a fear about being forced into some kind of conduct process or investigation if you don’t want that,” Heroy said. “So we set up this process of having the confidential staff reach out and have that be their first sort of point of contact, and then talk with students confidentially about their options. I think that really helped encourage reports to start coming in more.”
“More autonomy” for students
After a year of collaboration between faculty, administration and students, Oregon implemented a new Title IX reporting policy that Heroy said is unique.
Notably, Oregon has three groups of reporting parties. Two of them — confidential employees and designated reporters — are standard on most college campuses. Confidential employees include staff at the health and counseling centers, while designated reporters are people who have the authority to take action, such as senior leadership, staff in the Title IX office, resident advisors and law enforcement — people students would expect to go to if they wanted to make a formal report, Heroy said.
Oregon introduced a third category — student-directed. The student-directed employees “are obligated to do what the student wants them to do,” Heroy said. “So if a student comes to a faculty member and discloses that they’ve experienced violence or harassment, then that faculty needs to ask them if they want to make a more formal report to the institution to have some kind of more formal intervention or if they’re wanting to keep that information more private but instead be connected with resources and support.”
From there, the employee will consult with confidential staff at Oregon’s crisis-intervention office to help connect the student with information about their options. Based on the employee’s conversation with the student, identifiable information may or may not be shared with crisis center staff.
“So it’s kind of a compromise between wall-to-wall reporting on everything and trying to allow students to have more autonomy in the process and decide what they want to do and what they’re actually seeking,” Heroy said.
“I think it’s a much better place and really helpful for students who are feeling more comfortable seeking support,” she said.
Oregon also has improved its prevention education program over the last several years. Kerry Frazee, the university’s director of sexual violence prevention and education, oversees Title IX training for all incoming freshmen, transfer and international students. A few years ago, the school launched its “Get Explicit” program for all incoming first-year students.
“When we eventually started the mandatory first-year live on (campus) requirement, we started getting this whole population of folks that’s like a captive audience,” Heroy said. “They do this prevention education program facilitated by peer educators and focused on a lot of these groups and how they’re living together in the residence halls, and they’re able to reach like 4,000 students right when they’re coming in and start shaping dialogue and behavioral expectations and starting to create some collective norms and expectations of each other.”
Heroy said she’s seen positive effects from the program since its implementation.
“I think this year was maybe the fourth or fifth year, and so we have a whole population of undergraduate students who all received the same education, the same language and the same social norms and expectations,” Heroy said.
Frazee has been conducting research based on the program and has been able to evaluate its effectiveness throughout the year, scheduling follow-up or targeted training when necessary.
Constantly evaluating the process
In 2015, Oregon created a course for students in their first term, teaching about healthy sexuality, relationships, consent, bystander intervention, substance abuse and leadership. Oregon’s intercollegiate athletics staff estimates that about 80 percent of first-year student-athletes take the class.
“There are all of these things, as well as the communication that we did around the expanded resources, the website overhauls that we did, we have the SAFE hotline that got put on everybody’s student ID cards, so they flip over their card and see that,” Heroy said. “There’s just been this campaign over the last few years to expand awareness of all these resources and the ways in which people can get support.”
Then there’s Oregon’s Title IX website. Heroy ordered a redesign after she navigated the site and found that it wasn’t easy to file a report online. Now, there’s a large yellow button that’s nearly impossible to overlook.
Despite all the changes, Heroy knows the work will never be done.
“We’re constantly having to evaluate. You can’t ever sort of rest on your laurels,” she said. “I think there are things that we’re doing incredibly with — outreach to students, getting people connected to support and resources. But the more challenging aspects have to do, I think, with the constantly changing guidance and law related to adjudication of conduct cases.”
Under Heroy’s leadership, Oregon instituted an annual review of procedures for investigating and making decisions in code-of-conduct cases.
“I wanted to get feedback from students, employees, advisers, investigators and everybody who was touching the process to see how we can improve,” she said. “It’s really tough, because there’s no right way to do it, you know? It involves a lot of tough choices all the time.”
Heroy meets with students who have been through the process — both as complainants and respondents — to talk with them about their experiences. She’s also met with family members of students who have gone through the adjudication process and says she’s gotten some good feedback out of what are always difficult conversations.
Oregon also compiles data every year from disclosures of Title IX incidents.
“I say disclosures because people disclose things all the time and that’s not the same, in my view, as someone actually making a report to try and get some kind of intervention,” Heroy said.
She said that only about 10 percent of Oregon’s disclosures go through a formal conduct inquiry. While the school takes a student-directed approach in receiving complaints, officials can override a student’s wishes for the school not to intervene in cases involving threats to an individual or campus, weapons use, or predatory use of drugs or alcohol.
Officials won’t share information with police unless a student asks them to do so, but Oregon officials meet regularly with law enforcement.
“If a student wants to make a criminal report, we’ll help them do that,” Heroy said. “And we try to coordinate so that we don’t undermine the criminal process, which is always a possibility when you have overlapping investigations.”
Controversial mandatory reporting policies
Dr. Jennifer Freyd, a professor in the University of Oregon’s department of psychology, is an academic expert in the areas of sexual harassment, campus sexual violence, betrayal trauma and institutional betrayal.
Her research in mandatory reporting helped shape Oregon’s recently implemented policy, after she discovered that designating every employee as a mandatory reporter could actually be harmful to victims.
“Mandatory reporting policies have been very controversial in certain circles,” Freyd said. “I got very involved in this issue about three or four years ago because I was very concerned that these policies were actually counterproductive, both in sense of actually having the effect of killing reporting and having the side effect of harming survivors who lose the option to talk to someone they trust or lose the option to control their own narrative.”
Freyd began writing articles and speaking at panels to bring national attention to the issue, all the while working with Oregon officials to change the policy.
She believes Oregon’s policy could be a model for the whole country.
“Some people believe, incorrectly, that schools don’t have a choice here,” she said. “Part of it was educating people on two fronts. One is that it was not required at a federal level to have mandatory reporting. Two is that behavioral science literature did not support mandatory reporting as a good idea at all.”
Mandatory reporting at K-12 schools makes sense since the victims are children, she said. It shouldn’t be applied to adults, who should be given the autonomy and respect to make decisions for themselves, she said.
Long before Oregon’s basketball crisis, Freyd knew from her research that there were “tremendous, deep problems” with Title IX on campus. She took her concerns to the administration, but says she made little headway until 2014.
“Once there was this big crisis, the university realized they had to do something, and a whole lot of changes started to occur,” Freyd said. She said most changes have been positive, and she credits Heroy for many of them.
Freyd remains concerned that Oregon’s changes haven’t been enough and that the problem is bigger. She thinks the university needs a larger Title IX staff and should offer more student training and education.
“It’s really hard work,” she said. “People don’t realize how hard it is to change these things.”