Letter to the Editor: USC Tyndall settlement shows strength in numbers

I will never forget the day I arrived at the University of Southern California in 1991 — a dream come true for a girl from a small ranch town who longed to attend this prestigious University. The proudest day of my life was the day I first called myself a Trojan.

What was one of the best times of my life, however, quickly turned to one of the worst — an experience that I share with hundreds of women who attended USC and saw former gynecologist George Tyndall at the Engemann Student Health Center. For me, a simple appointment for prescription birth control turned into an deeply inappropriate exam. When he left the room, I felt dirty and ashamed. I look back at the young, naive girl I was, and I ask, why didn’t I fight him off? Why didn’t I scream for help?

In one day, the school I had loved my whole life became a place of shame and fear. My grades suffered, I broke up with my boyfriend because I could not stand to be touched and to this day, I struggle with intimacy in my relationships and find trusting men difficult.

I wish I could tell my 22-year-old self that I had done nothing wrong, but I can’t. What I can do today is help ensure this never happens again. That is why I stood up and put my name on a lawsuit against USC and George Tyndall. By casting off the shame I have felt for the last 25 years and putting my name on this lawsuit, I am showing my daughter that I have no reason to feel embarrassed or guilty. That decision, understandably, is not easy for every woman to make. And that is why I believe the $215 million class-action settlement reached with USC is the right one. 

One part of the agreement that is so important to me is that it provides choice. As sexual assault victims, we were never given a choice. Instead, we were dragged into the darkness of shame, pain and fear. Under this settlement, every woman — regardless of if they choose to share their story or not — is acknowledged as a survivor that should have never been put in harm’s way. 

The settlement also gives survivors a chance to unite for the betterment of an institution we all care about. One of the most difficult parts of my assault was that I thought I was Tyndall’s only victim. Now I know I am not alone; I have thousands of women standing beside me, saying that we will no longer tolerate this terrible behavior. I draw my strength from the courage of the other women who have stood up with me against this sexual predator who stalked the campus of our beloved University for nearly 30 years. 

Out of this strength and solidarity, we have developed what may be the most important part of the settlement — a series of changes in policies and procedures that USC must implement so that this never happens again. I am relieved that the young women who attend USC in the future will be safe and have avenues for reporting misconduct if it does occur. I was brushed aside when I complained, and I want that to change for future Trojans. 

After years of carrying this weight alone, this settlement represents closure for me. It ensures that USC is held responsible for this decades-long failure to protect students. 

I was able to choose whether to put my real name on the lawsuit or to file as a Jane Doe. While I hold no judgment against the women who chose to file as Jane Doe, it was important for me to use my real name because I know Tyndall does not remember me. I’m just one of hundreds of his nameless, faceless victims. 

I put my name on this lawsuit because I wanted Dr. Tyndall to hear this: My name is Shannon O’Conner, and in 1993, you held me down on an exam table against my will and sexually assaulted me. You violated your oath as a doctor to do no harm when you violated my body. I was intimidated and afraid, and I have been living with my shame, silently, for nearly 25 years. But I will never be silent again. I will speak up loudly to hold USC responsible and to help ensure the University keeps its students safe. 

By being a part of this settlement, I am fighting for a better future for my alma mater and its students. USC is an extraordinary university that boasts learning at the highest level, exciting experiences and significant opportunities for young people. I will always be a Trojan, and that means I fight on for USC, so it will again be the school I once loved for years to come.

Shannon O’Conner

USC alumna, 1995