OPINION: Sexual assault cases must be investigated by impartial party

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

When the U.S. Department of Education closed its investigation into USC’s handling of sexual assault cases in March, it seemed like a step forward. After the department concluded its five-year investigation, its Office for Civil Rights commended USC’s policy changes regarding sexual misconduct. But then the case was reopened after allegations against Engemann Student Health Center gynecologist George Tyndall surfaced in May. Its investigation was clearly not as thorough as intended, and completely missed or disregarded multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Somewhere in the process of transferring cases to federal authority, something was overlooked or hidden. This critical error subsequently reveals a deeper, systemic issue with how universities handle sexual misconduct.

The Department of Education’s failure to notice the Tyndall allegations — despite five years of investigation — demonstrates the ultimate failure of our current system to properly investigate sexual misconduct cases, which puts too much power in the hands of the University. In order to properly evaluate sexual misconduct claims, an impartial third party must be brought in.

Despite the initial investigation, which examined USC’s sexual misconduct cases from 2010 to 2015, allegations against Tyndall dating back to the 1990s never surfaced in the OCR report. Students had continuously filed complaints against Tyndall with medical staffers, and his colleagues reported his actions to Engemann executive director Lawrence Neinstein. Despite his knowledge of Tyndall’s alleged malpractice, Neinstein allowed Tyndall to remain in his position as the only full-time gynecologist at USC.

This is not to say Neinstein took no action; the director did refer the complaints to the University’s Office of Equity and Diversity, which investigates sexual misconduct and racial and gender discrimination. OED executive director Gretchen Dahlinger Means dismissed the complaints, claiming there was no wrongdoing on Tyndall’s part. This is where the allegations against Tyndall appear to have been omitted from the initial OCR investigation, and because Means was also the school’s Title IX coordinator at the time, the case also slipped away from the University’s purview.

The initial investigation missed complaints against Tyndall because it appeared there was nothing for USC to report in the first place. However, Tyndall’s financial payout and quiet resignation say otherwise.

The administration’s pattern of allowing faculty misconduct to go unpunished must be stopped. The problem is that the Department of Education and OCR, which are supposed to prevent this mishandling in the first place, cannot even access most of the reported information.

This systemic issue cannot be solved merely by the OCR’s second investigation. There is an urgent need for change in sexual misconduct reporting at universities. Schools must create a completely separate and independent entity to report, process and act on sexual assault cases. According to  Title IX, universities are required to prohibit gender discrimination —which includes sexual offenses — from occuring on campus. While universities must help by providing resources for victims, they should also provide counsel for the defendant. When the University investigates allegations against accused students, there can be grave academic consequences, but often little to no legal action taken against the perpetrator.

If students report sexual misconduct to the police, those records would be clear and accessible, as they would be included in publicly available databases rather than in-house University records. More importantly, law enforcement would be required to pursue the case. Universities inherently have a desire to protect their own reputations, and it will always be difficult — even nearly impossible — to change this. If students reach out to both local police and the University when sexual misconduct occurs instead, the investigation and possible punishment could come from both the school and the legal system. This would allow victims to recieve the full support they need while also granting the accused a fair trial.

Students want to feel safe and secure at USC. But their safety is threatened when perpetrators are allowed to remain on campus due to bureaucratic fumbles. The only way to truly ensure student safety is to encouarage them to advocate for themselves and their peers by taking their cases to legal authorities. In the end, students need to know they have the option to take legal action, and the University must actively encourage them to do so.