Ed Dept forces sweeping changes to USC’s Title IX policies

Dive Brief:

  • The University of Southern California for years failed to investigate reports that a former campus gynecologist sexually abused his patients, a U.S. Department of Education probe found.

  • George Tyndall, who worked at USC’s student health center from 1989 to 2016, sexually assaulted his patients and routinely made inappropriate remarks during exams, according to the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The university knew about Tyndall’s possible misconduct against five patients for nearly a decade but did not act, it found.

  • As a result, the department announced Thursday that it is forcing USC to overhaul its policies around the federal sex discrimination law, Title IX, and possibly punish employees who may not have taken “appropriate action” after learning of Tyndall’s wrongdoing.

Dive Insight:

USC is entering into an agreement with the Ed Department to make these changes at a time when rules around Title IX are in flux. 

The department has proffered draft regulations on the law that critics contend weaken safegaurds for sexual assault survivors. They have often claimed that the department, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, generally are disregarding campus sexual violence in favor of protecting accused students.

But the investigation into USC’s failings — and the scope of Tyndall’s abuse — is among the most extensive probes OCR has ever conducted, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus told reporters in a call on Thursday. The department interviewed more than 90 witnesses, including current and former USC employees, as well as 43 of Tyndall’s patients, Marcus said. 

He said the department’s review of USC may even eclipse its investigation into Michigan State University, in which the department fined the institution a historic $4.5 million for not addressing reports of sexual assault by Larry Nassar, a former athletics doctor.

OCR began investigating USC in May 2018, days after the Los Angeles Times published a report detailing Tyndall’s alleged abuse. The publication reported Tyndall was placed on leave in 2016, but was allowed to “resign quietly with a financial payout.”

The university knew of Tyndall sexually harassing patients since at least 2000, OCR found, and its failure to to respond to those reports may have led female students to being subjected to discrimination for more than a decade. 

USC lacked a recordkeeping system that could track repeated or multiple complaints against an employee, the department said. On three occasions — in 2010, 2013 and 2016 — complaints were brought to the office that handled sexual violence cases, but it did not conduct an investigation “that complied with Title IX.”

In 2016, the university discovered 200 photographs of patients’ genitals in Tyndall’s office. But Tyndall was allowed to continue seeing patients for a day and a half after the pictures were unearthed. Further, the report found, USC didn’t investigate Tyndall’s actions and the possession of the photographs “as potential sex discrimination.”

Marcus said the department was “disappointed” with USC’s level of cooperation with the investigation. 

A letter Thursday to USC President Carol Folt outlining OCR’s findings states that the department in part launched the investigation out of concern the university may have initially denied OCR access to documents and information about Tyndall. USC had already been the subject of an OCR investigation prior to the one started in May 2018.

USC will be forced to restructure the office that handles Title IX complaints, improve its centralized reporting system, and provide a list of sexual violence cases to OCR for at least three years. 

It will also need to review current and former employees to judge whether they complied with Title IX after they learned about Tyndall’s misconduct. Those staff members could face a range of sanctions from a written reprimand to a firing.

A federal judge indicated last month he was willing to accept a $215 million class-action settlement from USC. More than 18,000 women would receive between $2,500 and $250,000, The New York Times reported

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