Senior-leader support, focus on survivor needs key to addressing sexual misconduct in higher ed
Ohio State releases Task Force on Sexual Abuse report
The Ohio State University
Substantive senior-leader support for university efforts to address sexual misconduct and a policy focus on what’s best for survivors were two principal themes that emerged in the work conducted by The Ohio State University Task Force on Sexual Abuse.
Ohio State today released the task force’s report. The group had two primary charges: (1) reviewing public reports of past sexual abuse cases in higher education to discover recurring patterns and identify particular barriers to reporting incidents of misconduct, and (2) bringing together national experts to identify best practices for encouraging reporting and effective follow-up on college campuses and for providing support for survivors.
The university convened the task force in autumn 2019, following the May 2019 release of the independent investigative report into sexual abuse committed by Richard Strauss, who was employed by Ohio State from 1978 to 1998 and died in 2005. The investigation conducted by the law firm Perkins Coie detailed acts of sexual abuse against at least 177 former students, and concluded that university personnel at the time failed to adequately respond to or prevent Strauss’ abuse.
In convening the task force, former President Michael V. Drake directed the group to look beyond the walls of Ohio State to higher education more broadly in order to advance understanding of the forces that allow sexual misconduct to persist and of the pathways to a safer future for students.
“We took that to heart – that our role is to help promote a better future at colleges and universities by understanding both the circumstances that play a part in cases of ongoing abuse on campus, and how colleges and universities can take effective action, including by supporting survivors,” said Alan Michaels, chair of the task force and professor and dean emeritus of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law. “And time and again, we heard two things: the need for top university leaders to support institutional efforts directed at addressing sexual abuse and keeping the question ‘what is best for survivors?’ at the forefront of reform efforts.”
The task force report and its findings were not directed to any particular institution, including Ohio State. Instead, the information is being shared publicly for consideration by colleges and universities across the United States.
The task force was composed of academicians, law enforcement, a survivor of Strauss sexual abuse, and legal, medical, sports and human resources experts from Ohio State and other universities and agencies. The group met with eight nationally recognized experts in issues surrounding sexual abuse in a series of roundtable discussions.
Based on those sessions, which are detailed in the report, the task force identified a set of themes for the crucial work of assisting reporting of misconduct, developing pathways to action on college campuses, enhancing a culture of compliance, and establishing sustainable mechanisms for survivor support and recovery. These themes are outlined in the report.
The task force also reviewed public reports and identified 31 higher education sexual abuse cases involving more than one victim that became known to the public in the past decade. The cases themselves dated as far back as the 1940s. The purpose of this review was to identify and understand common elements and patterns in those cases, with particular, but not exclusive, attention to challenges and cultural barriers in departments of athletics or clinical medical enterprises that could affect sexual abuse reporting.
The review identified a number of patterns, which are detailed in the report. Some of these findings included:
- The alleged abuser was affiliated with medicine in seven cases, sports in four (including two of the seven in medicine), religious leadership in four, other faculty disciplines in 16, and nonfaculty administration in two.
- Three cases involved faculty in music, who had one-on-one contact with survivors through private lessons.
- Most cases involved long-term abuse occurring over at least five years.
- The largest reported cases — in terms of number of survivors — were overwhelmingly in the athletics and medical contexts.
- Perpetrators were male in all identified cases.
- Abuse incidents were consistently gender specific: In 12 cases, all survivors were male; in 18 cases, the survivors were all female; in one case, survivors were female or gender non-conforming.
- In 71% of cases involving medicine, public reports indicate the alleged abuse occurred in the context of a purported medical exam.
- In more than half of cases, survivors reported they feared the alleged abuser would retaliate against them.
Ohio State has been reviewing and reinforcing university practices that relate to sexual misconduct matters for the past several years, said Gates Garrity-Rokous, vice president and chief compliance officer for the Office of University Compliance and Integrity at Ohio State.
“Many of the best practices identified by the task force are already in place at Ohio State or are in the process of being continuously improved,” Garrity-Rokous said.
The university has consistently expanded resources to prevent and address sexual misconduct over the past two decades. Information on policies, programs, staffing and tools is compiled online.
In 2019, Ohio State established the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE), a centralized unit focusing on institutional prevention of and response to all forms of harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct. With the centralized infrastructure in place, the OIE team has been refining a range of resources and processes to help educate the community, enhance support for survivors, and foster a culture in which students, faculty and staff work together to create an environment that is equitable, fair and just.
Other enhancements that have been recently completed or are in progress at Ohio State include:
- Clarifying how community members can report an allegation by consolidating previously existing functions into a single place to report through OIE. Ohio State also offers anonymous, confidential reporting through a service called EthicsPoint.
- Expanding education opportunities beyond Title IX to include all forms of harassment and discrimination.
- Developing an annual report with statistics on reports, supportive measures and investigations, along with detailing education efforts and proactive work to combat discrimination, harassment and sexual misconduct.
- Collecting climate and culture data from faculty and staff – in addition to existing surveys of students about campus climate – and considering a survey opportunity to collect information on all forms of harassment and discrimination.
- Launching the Shared Values initiative to collect faculty, staff and student opinions related to Ohio State’s culture, values and ethics and use the feedback to help enhance the student and employee experience. Findings from the initiative will also be incorporated into OIE educational programming.
Anyone who has experienced sexual misconduct while at Ohio State is encouraged to report to the Office of Institutional Equity, the university’s anonymous reporting service or law enforcement. SARNCO On-Campus Advocates provide confidential support for survivors of sexual violence, including students, faculty, staff and visitors on the Columbus campus, and can be reached by calling 614-688-2518.
Those who have experienced sexual misconduct outside of Ohio State should contact local law enforcement.
Additional resources include:
- If you reside in the Columbus, Ohio, area, advocates from SARNCO can assist you in reporting; explain options, which may include an investigation; and support you. SARNCO’s confidential, 24/7 support hotline is 614-267-7020, and its State-wide Sexual Violence Helpline is 844-OHIO-HELP.
- If you do not reside in the Columbus area, you can contact the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline, a confidential, 24/7 resource, at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). You can also visit the website to chat live with a representative. Advocates will help you find a resource in your community.
Current Ohio State students seeking additional support services can contact the Office of Student Life’s Counseling and Consultation Service while faculty and staff can access support resources through the Employee Assistance Program.