U of OPreviously, we’ve blogged about the University of Oregon’s mishandling of a sexual assault survivor’s case and the problems attendant with the laws governing the confidentiality of counseling records obtained through University services.

Today, the Eugene Weekly published a piece by Camilla Mortensen, which further detailed the controversies swirling around UO and related institutions’ invasions of student privacy.  In the article, Mortensen describes another victim, Laura Hanson, who settled with UO after she, too, was raped by a fellow student, and the University likewise failed to properly respond.

In January of 2013, Hanson was raped by Wil Smith, a member of UO fraternity Chi Psi, after she was likely drugged by the assailant or one of his fraternity brothers. Hanson struggled to define what happened to her that night, and, like many victims of sexual assault, initially had trouble comprehending what had happened to her; Hanson said,  “[t]he way I phrased it [was], ‘I had sex with someone I didn’t want to have sex with.’ It took me five days to call it rape.”

Hanson confided in several of her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters, but instead of support, she only received victim-blaming and minimizing comments, which added to her confusion. “[The sorority sisters] said things like, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like something [the perpetrator] would do.’ One sister chided her for having sex with a man who Hanson’s sorority ‘little sister’ had a crush on.”  These responses, too, are altogether uncommon: when many individuals think of a sex offender, the image that immediately comes to mind is one of a masked stranger attacking someone in the night.  It is difficult for others to rationalize their belief in a “just world” where sexual assault can happen to anyone, and assailants can be people we know and trust. This, in turn, leads to victim-blaming, which of course compounds victims’ suffering and furthers their feelings of self-doubt, guilt and shame.

Her Sorority sisters planned a party with Chi Psi, the offender’s fraternity.  Hanson asked her Sorority sisters not to throw the party, but they did so anyway.  In May 2013, Hanson wrote a letter to the University, which eventually made its way to UO Title IX officer Penny Daugherty.  Daugherty told Hanson that she shouldn’t bothering filing a police report, as it was a “he-said-she-said” situation.

In mid-January 2013, Hanson went to UO student health center to be tested for possible STDs.  She informed the nurse practitioner of the assault during the examination, which Hanson believed was confidential.  After she reported the assault in May 2013, she began accessing student counseling services, which she likewise believed were confidential.  However, later Hanson would learn that these records were not, in fact, confidential: similar to the way in which UO accessed Jane Doe’s therapy records in late 2014, the University reviewed Hanson’s records without her knowledge or permission.

The University began its investigation in May 2013, and interviewed several people – including some of Hanson’s sorority sisters – but not the perpetrator or members of his fraternity.  One month later, the University’s efforts in conducting the investigation effectively ceased.  Then, the backlash truly began: Hanson was ostracized, shamed, blamed and forced to cope with an overall hostile environment, all while trying to attend classes and obtain her education.  “As time went by and the school did nothing, Hanson’s friends — the sorority that had been her community — began to believe she was ‘a liar and a slut,’ Hanson says. In her sorority, ‘You make a vow to support and be loyal,’ she says. ‘People who made that vow told me I was lying.’”

After receiving no updates from the school for close to four months, “[o]n September 17, 2013, Hanson emailed Daugherty. No response. A couple days later Hanson called her. That was when Hanson says Daugherty apologized for letting her case ‘slip off the radar.’  Still, Hanson says there was no response. So on Nov. 5, getting close to a year after the incident, she emailed again.  Nothing.  Hanson wound up having to come back for a fifth year of school.  She was ‘completely isolated,’ she says. ‘It’s so much work just to be heard by them,’ she says of the UO.”  The University’s failure to properly handle Hanson’s case only added to her already severe trauma.

Eventually, Hanson confided in Cheney Ryan, a professor at UO, who was aghast to learn of the University’s response (or lackthereof) in Hanson’s case.  Ryan “went over Daugherty’s head to Vice President for Finance and Administration Jamie Moffitt, ‘and [he] said this is a very serious case and the university has behaved very inappropriately here.’ Hanson got a call the next day.”  In January of 2014, the UO informed Hanson that the perpetrator “responsible for sexual misconduct as defined in the Student Conduct Code.”  As punishment, the perpetrator was given three requirements: “He could have no contact with Hanson, he was put on disciplinary probation until graduation and he had to keep a ‘Sexual Misconduct Journal: a five-part educational activity that encourages education and reflection on topics around this violation.’”

Dismayed and distressed at the result and the University’s handling of her case, Hanson contacted an attorney, and in August of 2014, sent notice of her intent to assert claims against UO for violation of Title IX.  During negotiations with the UO – prior to filing suit – it came to light that the University had accessed all of Hanson’s counseling and medical records obtained from student health services.

Oregonian reporter Richard Read published an article earlier this month detailing the recent events underway at UO, specifically addressing the investigation of six UO employees – including the vice president and a former director of the counseling center – for mishandling Jane Doe’s counseling records.  Read also reported that the Oregon State Bar will be investigating potential misconduct charges against UO attorneys Douglas Park and Samantha Hill.

Although the University settled with Hanson prior to her filing a lawsuit, the similarities between the UO’s handling of Hanson’s and Jane Doe’s  cases lead to frightening conclusions.  As Mortensen aptly summarized, “This is the second time the UO seems to have simply taken a student’s counseling records, leading to the question of whether the school has a pattern and practice of doing so in these cases. The first known incident was that of the basketball rape survivor, and when that was made public, in addition to the UO’s decision to countersue the survivor, the backlash was intense, locally and across the country.”

Crew Janci LLP client and survivor-turned-advocate Brenda Tracy recently helped pass legislation addressing some of the concerns present in the UO cases.  Earlier this week, HB 3476 passed the Senate in a unanimous vote; the bill creates a new privilege in the Oregon evidence code concerning victims’ confidential communications with certain victim advocates.  The bill now awaits the Governor’s signature, and will be effective immediately upon signing.  We are also working on two other bills aimed at helping sexual abuse survivors on and off campus: SB 759 would require universities to provide students with a list of resources relating to sexual assault and domestic violence services, and HB 2317 would double the criminal statute of limitations from six years to twelve years.

At the end of the day, however, in order to assure the confidentiality of student therapy records, the United States Congress must act to amend and update FERPA – the law governing student “education” records, including therapy records – to make it more in line with the protections offered under HIPAA – the law which protects medical records from unlawful disclosure.  We here at Crew Janci LLP and our client Brenda Tracy have been working to effect these changes, and will continue to do advocate on behalf of survivors of sexual violence through both litigation and policy reform.