What It Looks Like When A University Truly Fixes How It Handles Sexual Assault

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Brenda Tracy never dreamed she’d wear an Oregon State University T-shirt — not after what happened in 1998.

In June of that year, Tracy, then 24 and living with her parents, reported to police that four men had gang-raped her at a party. Two of the accused assailants, she said, were OSU football players.

What happened next was disappointing, to say the least. The accused men implicated each other in interviews, but prosecutors did not share that information with Tracy — essentially leading her to believe her case was weaker than it really was. Based on that bad information, Tracy ultimately decided to stop cooperating with prosecutors, and the case petered out. The state destroyed her rape kit without telling her, and before the statute of limitations expired. OSU, it would later be revealed, only punished the two accused players with a one-game suspension and community service.

So by the time Tracy told her story to a reporter, in 2014, she didn’t have particularly warm feelings for Oregon State. But then she received something she never expected: an apology.

It’s hardly uncommon these days to hear about colleges and universities failing to handle sexual assault cases with the appropriate gravity. Even when schools vow to do better, even when they say they’re taking the issue “very seriously,” many of them still face complaints from students about yet more failures

But Tracy said OSU’s president, Ed Ray, was different. 

“Ed Ray really stepped up to the plate — not just said something, but actually did take it seriously,” Tracy told The Huffington Post. “I’m very confident in this point that he really does care and gets it.”

After Tracy came forward, Oregon State issued a public apology for how it had responded to her report more than a decade earlier. And then the school hired her to be a consultant on how it should handle sexual assault. Rather than freezing out the whistleblower, OSU regularly brings Tracy in to speak to classes, sports teams and members of Greek life about sexual violence. In February, she spoke at an OSU conference on healthy masculinity.

Beyond that, Ray successfully lobbied the Pac-12 Conference to bar athletes from transferring to schools after they’ve been suspended or expelled for sexual assault. And OSU set up an on-campus advocacy center for victims, even as other universities closed their own

When it comes to recognizing its mistakes in student sexual assault cases, and taking steps to put them right, Oregon State might be one of the most progressive schools in the country. 

“You can sort of push issues under the rug or be in denial about them,” Ray told HuffPost. “But they’re real, and they touch peoples’ lives.”

“I get the sense there are places where perfectly decent people find such matters so awful and so hard to deal with, personally, that they almost have blinders on,” he went on. “Who gets hurt by that? The victim. So somehow we all need to suck it up.” 

Brenda Tracy’s Story

In June 1998, Tracy told police that four football players had gang-raped her in Corvallis, Oregon, at an off-campus apartment. Two of the men Tracy accused attended Oregon State. Tracy herself was not and had never been an OSU student, but she told the school about the alleged incident, feeling that officials there should know.

Prosecutors misled Tracy about the viability of her case. Meanwhile, she was receiving death threats for having come forward at all. Ultimately, she decided not to move forward with charges against the men.

No one at Oregon State spoke with Tracy again until she called them in 2014, when she was 40 years old and in therapy — and curious about what, exactly, had happened. 

That year, the University of Oregon was under intense scrutiny for waiting until after March Madness to start investigating a report that three basketball players gang-raped a female student. UO was also facing backlash for recruiting one of those players, Brandon Austin, after he was punished by Providence College for a claim that he and another student sexually assaulted a woman. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Oregon State University’sEd Ray did something unusual for college presidents: He actually apologized for what the school did wrong.

OSU was evasive when she called in 2014, Tracy said, and declined to disclose information about her 1998 report. Tracy was frustrated, and decided to contact the writer of an article about OSU’s football team, Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano.

After Tracy told her story to Canzano in November 2014, Ray, who has been president of Oregon State since 2003, ordered an internal investigation. Three weeks later, he and a top Title IX official met with Tracy in Portland to deliver the results in person

The two OSU players in the 1998 case, Tracy learned, had been given probation and 25 hours of community service, and were suspended for one football game. The university imposed such light sanctions because it saw the alleged incident as something that wasn’t its responsibility, since it had happened off campus.

Tracy was devastated to learn the men she accused had merely received slaps on the wrist. But then something remarkable happened: Ray apologized, on behalf of himself and the university. 

The Apology Was Just The Beginning

“He was tearful at points,” Tracy said, remembering the hour-long conversation with Ray where he apologized. “Sitting there, looking in his eyes, I really did feel compassion coming from him. I really did feel he was being sincere.” Still, she said, she took Ray to task during that conversation, letting him know how upset she was that the men she’d accused of raping her had walked away with barely any punishment.

Tracy also mentioned that she’d like to find a school to partner with to improve how sexual assaults are handled. Ray said he wanted Oregon State to be that school. 

Ray said he asked himself, “What does it make sense to do as a human being?”

“One reason why a lot of institutions get it wrong with very real, very personal human tragedies like this,” Ray told HuffPost, “is they forget it’s not about the institution. It’s not about damage control. It’s about trying to understand what the situation is, regardless of whose watch it was on.”

Courtesy of Brenda Tracy
Ray, left, poses withBrenda Tracy. The two have teamed up to improve how Oregon State University handles sexual violence.

Oregon State didn’t try to sugarcoat the way it handled Tracy’s accusations, even though Tracy might have sued the school. In fact, another woman later did.

Kristen Samuelson sued Oregon State in September 2015, saying she was drugged and raped in 1999 in the same Corvallis apartment where Tracy’s alleged rape took place. According to Samuelson’s suit, OSU student health officials responded to her claims at the time by suggesting that maybe she’d actually consented to sex. The school also referred Samuelson to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, the suit said. 

The lawsuit was dismissed, largely due to the fact the alleged assailant was not an OSU student. Yet in the dismissal, Judge Michael McShane wrote that OSU’s “response to the rapes of Ms. Samuelson and Ms. Tracy was shameful, woefully inadequate, and will remain a dark stain on the history of the institution.” He accused the school of looking the other way so as not to alienate “donors and talented athletes.” 

The school never challenged Samuelson’s recollection of events. It did, however, dispute the idea that Oregon State could be held legally responsible for her alleged assault. In a public statement, OSU offered to provide non-monetary help for Samuelson, like counseling.

OSU’s response to the rapes … was shameful, woefully inadequate, and will remain a dark stain on the history of the institution.” U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane

It may seem like a small thing for Oregon State to offer an apology to Tracy, or to refrain from challenging Samuelson’s credibility as a rape victim. But such things are “absolutely important,” said Laura Hanson, a University of Oregon graduate and sexual assault survivor.

Hanson reached a settlement with UO in 2014 over errors in how it handled her sexual assault report. After that, when Hanson had no ability ever to sue UO again, she said she asked if she could work with UO’s student affairs office to make reforms. But the administrators pretended they didn’t know who she was.

“Any efforts that I’ve made to connect with U of O have been completely ignored or shut down,” Hanson told HuffPost. “It looks small to an outsider, probably, but that kind of connection is important. It shows other survivors that they still have a place at the school.”

The Domino Effect Of Getting A College President On Board

As Tracy started lobbying the state legislature for reforms on how survivors are treated, Ray wrote letters of support for bills that would enhance privacy rights for campus rape victims. He also advocated for requirements that college sexual assault survivors be informed of their rights. These measures passed, and were signed into law. 

“He’s just been one of my biggest champions and supporters,” Tracy said. 

Ray also decided that Oregon State should no longer accept students transferring in, or starting as grad students, who would not able to re-enroll immediately at their original institution. In other words, students suspended or expelled from somewhere else cannot find safe haven at OSU.

The issue of students punished for assault simply transferring to other schools, without having to disclose their records, has attracted national scrutiny amid concerns that serial attackers could slip away to offend again. Brandon Austin’s case brought it home to Oregon

On Dec. 1, 2015, one day after the new OSU transfer rule was announced, Ray turned to lobbying the Pac-12 Conference to implement similar rules for its student athletes, according to emails obtained by HuffPost. He succeeded.

On March 12, the presidents and chancellors of Pac-12 member institutions voted to bar student athletes from transferring to their schools to play on athletic teams if those students would be unable to re-enroll at their original college due to misconduct issues like assault, harassment or academic fraud. 

Back in spring 2015, mid-level OSU administrators began talking about creating a central hub, or “one-stop shop,” for sexual assault survivors on campus, in the hopes of simplifying the process of getting help after an assault. When they pitched this idea to the Ray, his response was, “I want it up by fall — tell us what you need to make it happen.”

It was “the fastest, quickest that anything’s been decided in my 12-plus years in higher ed,” said Rob Reff, director of health promotion at OSU. 

Hopefully we never forget that individuals are much more important than saving face.” Ed Ray, Oregon State University President

When the Sexual Assault Resource Center opened up at Oregon State, it was housed inconspicuously in the Student Health Services building, which has people coming and going all the time. No one would be announcing themselves as a survivor by entering the building. 

The school has spent nearly $800,000 since mid-2014 on boosting Title IX administrative positions and expanding resources for survivors. For sexual assault investigations, OSU more than doubled its staff during that time. 

The practical result of all these efforts is a campus where some female students now say they can hardly enter a bathroom without seeing information about what resources are available to sexual assault survivors. Prior to 2015, the annual Take Back the Night events had typically an attendance of 40 or 50 students. Last April, that number went up to 700.

Discovering What ‘Institutional Courage’ Looks Like

Kathryn Becker-Blease, a psychology professor at Oregon State, studied under Jennifer Freyd at the University of Oregon. Freyd is known for her work on institutional betrayal — what it’s like for a trauma victim when an institution, for example a university, acts unhelpfully instead of giving them support. Becker-Blease’s students were interested in doing some of that research at OSU. But they hit a snag.

“Every time we went to deploy the survey, something else would happen that was an incident of institutional courage,” Becker-Blease told HuffPost. “We actually switched the entire research question. Now we’re looking at, could institutionally courageous statements and actions actually lessen the impact of sexual assault? Are some of these statements not just good PR, but actually public health intervention?”

Courtesy of Brenda Tracy
Tracy never thought she’d wear Oregon State University gear, not after she reported that OSU football players sexually assaulted her.

Ray, for his part, hopes the changes his university is putting in place will make a difference if one of his students is assaulted.

“Hopefully we never forget that individuals are much more important than saving face,” he told HuffPost. 

Tracy, meanwhile, has come a long way in less than two years. In 2014, she said, the first time she drove into Corvallis, she had to pull her car over and throw up. That doesn’t happen anymore. When she spoke to the OSU basketball team, they gave her a T-shirt. She wore it. Tracy “never thought in a million years” she’d do something like that. 

“I feel like the way that Ed Ray handled my case is why I am where I am today,” Tracy said. She recommends that more schools partner with victims and survivors, because “we have so much to say, and so much to offer. There so many things we can help you with.”

Tracy, who today has two college-aged sons of her own, is continuing her career in nursing. She hopes to partner with Nike soon to work on sexual assault awareness efforts, in the hopes of getting her message to boys early on in life.

“I don’t want to be angry anymore,” Tracy said. “I spent so much of life being bitter and angry and frustrated. Now my purpose is about love and acceptance and how can we fix it.”

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Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter who covers higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

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Read more: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2016/03/24/oregon-state-university-sexual-assault_n_9638016.html