Regulators slam USC handling of sex abuse allegations as ‘shocking and reprehensible’
The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday ordered USC to make changes in how it handles sexual harassment cases and to submit to three years of federal monitoring, saying the university failed to protect students from a campus gynecologist accused of abusing hundreds of patients.
“What we have found at USC is shocking and reprehensible,” Kenneth L. Marcus, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights, said in a statement. “No student should ever have to face the disgusting behavior that USC students had to deal with.”
In finding that USC violated the civil rights of students, the department levied a long list of sanctions stemming from USC’s handling of complaints about Dr. George Tyndall, the sole full-time gynecologist at the student health clinic for 27 years. Tyndall, as The Times revealed nearly two years ago, was the subject of multiple complaints from patients and colleagues over the decades, including reports that he photographed women’s genitals, performed improper pelvic and breast exams and made suggestive comments during medical exams.
USC allowed Tyndall to continue practicing and ultimately to leave the university in 2016 with a financial payout and a clean record with the state medical board.
In a 51-page letter to USC President Carol Folt, a U.S. Department of Education official said investigators had uncovered numerous instances in which the university failed to take action against Tyndall in compliance with Title IX, the federal civil rights law that bars sex-based discrimination:
- Between 2000 and 2009, five patients notified the university about possible sexual harassment by Tyndall, including three women who put their complaints in writing, yet USC “failed to investigate” or otherwise did not take the matter seriously.
- The university “failed to investigate as possible sexual harassment” another patient’s 2016 complaint that Tyndall had penetrated her with two fingers after she told him not to.
- After discovering more than 200 photographs of patients’ genitals in Tyndall’s office in 2016, the university allowed him to see patients for another day and a half and neglected to investigate the existence of the images as sexual harassment.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos criticized the university in a statement, saying, “This total and complete failure to protect students is heartbreaking and inexcusable.”
Folt and Rick Caruso, chairman of the USC Board of Trustees, agreed in writing last week to comply with an array of changes the federal regulators required, according to a signed resolution released Thursday by the department.
Folt, who took office after C.L. Max Nikias was forced out as president in the fallout from the scandal, said in a statement that she shared the goals of federal regulators.
Their “conclusions align with my personal resolve to strengthen USC policies, procedures and practices to promote patient well-being and prevent future misconduct,” she said. “The university is confronting its past and implementing changes necessary to inform its future.”
By April, USC will have to provide a plan to revise the structure of its Title IX office and improve tracking and record-keeping of sexual harassment and discrimination reports and complaints.
For the next three years, USC will have to provide a record of all complaints of sexual harassment and violence and report to federal regulators about the progress of investigations and case resolutions.
The Title IX coordinator will also have to provide annual reports to top university administrators with details about pending and resolved sexual misconduct cases.
The sanctions against USC are common penalties imposed by the Department of Education after investigations into Title IX compliance, according to higher education attorneys.
“A three-year monitoring period is typical,” said Brett Sokolow, the president of the Assn. of Title IX Administrators. Still, he said, it’s rare for an institution to have been found in violation. “They save that for the schools that are truly asleep at the wheel or stepped over the line.”
Other universities found complicit in high-profile sex scandals have faced fines: Penn State paid $2.4 million in 2016 for failures in its handling of child-abusing coach Jerry Sandusky. Regulators assessed Michigan State University a record $4.5 million last fall for its failure to protect student athletes from Dr. Larry Nassar, a team doctor now imprisoned for sex crimes.
But investigations like the one by the department’s Office of Civil Rights into USC’s handling of allegations against Tyndall typically do not result in monetary penalties, experts said.
Joshua Richards, an attorney specializing in higher education at the Philadelphia firm Saul, Ewing, Arnstein & Lehr, said the only funding penalty would be cutting off an institution’s access to federal money.
“That’s an incredibly severe sanction,” Richards said. “It would likely result in the closure of a university, and it’s never been imposed.”
The department spent nearly two years investigating USC, during which it reviewed thousands of documents and interviewed scores of staff members and administrators, including Nikias and former Provost Michael Quick. Still, the investigation did not have unlimited access. USC withheld 3,638 emails and other documents about Tyndall from federal regulators, citing attorney-client privilege.
DeVos thanked former patients for talking to the department’s investigators about their experiences.
“Because of your bravery, we can now work with the university to ensure this never happens to another student on USC’s campus,” she said in a statement.
The department noted in its findings Thursday that USC already had paid a steep price for its mistakes in the Tyndall matter. A judge gave final approval this week to a $215-million class-action settlement aimed at compensating an estimated 18,000 former Tyndall patients. An additional $25 million has been set aside to pay lawyers and other costs in that settlement.
Also, the university is facing lawsuits brought by more than 600 former patients who opted out of the class-action settlement.
John Manly, one of the lead attorneys representing Tyndall’s former patients in the pending lawsuits against USC, said the report issued Thursday was “a stinging indictment” of USC’s leaders and trustees.
“This report paints a picture of administrators completely and utterly indifferent to the safety of its students at a university obsessed with protecting its brand and image, rather than the well-being of its female students,” Manly said.
USC has retained three top-tier law firms to defend against those cases. Resolving those claims could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The university is also footing the bill for the law firm O’Melveny & Myers to conduct an internal investigation of Tyndall’s time at USC.
USC employees are also expected to be important witnesses in the criminal case against the gynecologist. He has pleaded not guilty to criminal charges that he engaged in sexual misconduct against 16 former patients at the campus clinic dating to 2009.
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