A change.org petition started by Portland State student Suzanna Ruiz regarding a sexual assault case impacting one of her friends at PSU has reached over 107,000 signatures as of Oct. 13.
PSU student Eden Paul, survivor of the alleged assault, said that the PSU Code of Conduct Committee did not enable her to fairly seek the justice and safety that she needed to continue her education following her report of sexual assault.
The petition states, “After this tragic incident it seems as though following the guidelines of reporting a sexual assault with hard evidence existing of said assault, justice and safety to a victim will not be guaranteed.”
The petition claims that by not taking disciplinary action against Paul’s alleged rapist, PSU is in violation of Title IX. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs receiving any type of federal financial assistance.
There has been increased action on improving university compliance with Title IX this year, with the founding of the White House Task Force to Protect Students From Sexual Assault, as well as many high profile sexual assault cases and protests moving forward on campuses across the country.
According to the White House Task Force report, “One in five women will be victims of sexual assault by the time they graduate…Title IX makes clear that students who report sexual violence have a right to expect their school to take steps to protect and support them.”
The petition emphasizes the severity of sexual assault incidents on campus.
“I wanted to raise awareness about sexual assault and that it shouldn’t be taken lightly by schools or authorities,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said that she is excited that the petition has attracted so much attention, but she is not sure that this will be translated to action on campus.
“I’m not really sure what it can accomplish, because the school isn’t really taking note of it,” Ruiz said. “I don’t think they care. I’ve emailed [administrators] to let them know about the petition and so far I haven’t received any replies.”
Scott Gallagher, director of communications at PSU, declined to comment on this particular case, citing rules protecting student privacy, including those laid out in the Family Education Records Protection Act.
“We cannot discuss private matters that concern our students,” Gallagher said. “The goal is to protect their privacy. Certainly in cases like this, we don’t talk about any kind of sexual assault.”
Paul said that she was thankful for the petition and surprised by how quickly it was attracting signatures.
“I appreciate it so much, it was one of the kindest things someone can do because it really made me feel less alone in the whole situation,” Paul said.
The Student Code of Conduct hearing
What follows is the survivor’s account of the hearing and the assault. The alleged assailant was not named and the university declined to comment on this case, citing FERPA.
Paul was not on campus over the summer when the PSU Student Conduct Committee held the hearing for her case.
“I left Portland after the assault, and a trial was set up with the school back in July or August,” Paul said. “The student who assaulted me had a representative, a lawyer or something like that, present. I was on the phone in a conference call.”
Paul also said that the timing of the hearing was to her disadvantage.
“They made the decision without having all of the information. I still was trying to get information from the hospital that I went to because they needed any sort of evidence,” Paul said.
Alyssa Peterson, an organizer at Know Your IX, a survivor-run campaign to end campus sexual violence said, “I don’t think any person would think [a phone call] is a good way to handle allegations of sexual assault… It very clearly isn’t giving her the opportunity to share her story and seek the justice that she needs.”
Paul was also disappointed in the hearing’s brevity and the committee’s focus on alcohol.
“We were supposed to have [several] questions that the school committee would ask us…They asked me one question and then they went to make their decision,” Paul said.
“They really did not put any focus on the physical bruising on me from the attack,” Paul said. “Instead the school was asking about how drunk I was, whether I was too drunk to consent. That really wasn’t the case.”
“I felt like every time there was any discussion about my state of mind—because I was traumatized, I couldn’t remember everything that happened—they assumed that I [could not remember] because I was completely and utterly wasted,” Paul said.
Peterson expressed her frustration that the role of alcohol seems to have been misunderstood by the Student Conduct Committee.
“The fact that the victim was repeatedly asked about alcohol shows that there continues to be a victim blaming culture,” Peterson said.
The university also may have failed to take interim actions that are suggested by the Federal Office of Civil Rights to protect the victim from the accused.
“They did not inform me that he’s in the same building that I’m currently living,” Paul said. “It’s really unsettling and I just don’t feel safe. It’s University Pointe, so technically not part of university housing…I’m not really sure how much control the school has over that.”
Peterson said that Title IX includes interim measures for keeping survivors safe while waiting for their case to be decided.
“Interim measures are basically on a request basis. If she feels uncomfortable and wants him to [be moved to another dorm] and the school knows that, they are violating Title IX,” Peterson said.
Peterson spoke of an emerging gap between the policies that universities are required to have on paper through Title IX and the process that survivors go through once a sexual assault is reported.
“What’s happening now at [PSU] is very indicative of what’s happening [nationally],” Peterson said. “Two years ago, it would be easy to see who wasn’t in compliance because everyone’s policies were terrible. They wouldn’t be complying with the Department of Education preponderance of the evidence standard, or they wouldn’t be having hearings.”
Even though many schools have changed their policies, this has not necessarily lead to better outcomes for students reporting sexual assault.
“We’re still seeing the issue; people aren’t being expelled for committing violations against other students,” Peterson said. “You’re seeing this at [PSU], even though the written policies look pretty good.”
Many colleges have adopted policies recommended by advocates and federal officials to hold hearings with lower standards of proof than in criminal cases.
Melinda Joy, a senator with the Associated Students of PSU, identifies as a survivor of sexual assault and has been active on campus advocating for policy changes because of her dissatisfaction with campus resources for survivors.
PSU follows the preponderance of evidence standard that Peterson mentioned. The PSU code states that a preponderance of the evidence “means whether something is ‘more likely than not’” to have occurred.
“Because Title IX is a civil rights law, we use the civil standard,” Peterson explained.
This gives the school more flexibility to hold students accountable for violations that may not have been proven beyond reasonable doubt, which is the standard used in criminal cases.
Joy mentioned a few specific issues that she would like to see added to the PSU Code of Conduct’s section on sexual assault.
“To make the process more survivor centered, we need an amnesty clause in regard to the survivor being under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” Joy said.
“I’d had people in power tell me to take time off [from college] until this is over. But [post-traumatic stress disorder] is lifelong,” Joy said. “That’s expressing to someone that they are not welcome in this space.”
Joy also said that this often comes with a financial burden and delays the graduation of the survivor, which are costs that the survivor should not be the one to bear.
“As a survivor, Eden did absolutely everything that she could to give them a chance to make a case,” Joy said. “Together, we are two examples of how Title IX is being violated at PSU.”
Gallagher recognized that additional efforts are needed to address the issue of sexual assault on campus and mentioned online training in D2L.
“We continue to work on additional efforts to address this serious issue,” Gallagher said. “As of last spring, all students at [PSU] are required to complete a lengthy questionnaire to raise their awareness of sexual assaults, including what constitutes consent, how assaults can be prevented, how to report assaults and what services are available to students on the campus and in the community.
“In particular, we encourage students to report sexual assaults because we know that many assaults go unreported at universities,” Gallagher added.
However, Peterson noted that mishandled cases can prevent other survivors from reporting sexual response.
Joy also proposed clauses that exclude discussion of the survivor’s dress and past sexual history during hearings, as well as more clearly defined procedures students can follow for voicing concerns throughout the process.
Students taking action
Last spring, Joy formed a PSU chapter of Students Active For Ending Rape, a national organization for reforming college sexual assault policies.
Joy mentioned that resources on campus can be difficult to access, and that for someone who recently experienced trauma, what might seem like a minor barrier can become a major hurdle.
“I walked into the Women’s Resource Center and I asked, ‘What do you offer? Are there support groups for survivors?’ I was directed at a wall of pamphlets and told that they have an interpersonal violence program. That was all that was told to me, and that doesn’t sound like anything that a survivor is going to know to look for when they are seeking out resources,” Joy said.
Joy said that she was frustrated that the WRC had not taken on a more active role in promoting sexual assault prevention and policy change within the university, since the university itself is charged with upholding Title IX.
Jessica Amo, director of the WRC, declined to comment and directed all questions to Gallagher in the Office of University Communications.
Paul, on the other hand, reported having a very supportive experience seeking help at the WRC.
“I’d say that the Women’s Resource Center is definitely the safest place that you can go to [following sexual assault],” Paul said. “They only want to do what you want to do, they’re not pressuring you to do anything that you’re uncomfortable with.”
The Oregon Student Association, a statewide, student-led nonprofit organization, has taken on sexual assault prevention and improving services for survivors as one of its lobbying campaigns for this legislative session.
Mario Parker-Milligan, legislative director of the OSA, said that they will be lobbying for legislation that will come in mid-January to improve and standardize how sexual assault is handled across all of Oregon’s universities and community colleges.
“One of the recommendations that we will be moving forward with is standardizing best practices for Oregon universities and community colleges in terms of reporting,” Parker-Milligan said. “The other part that we’re looking to do across the state is to create and implement some preventative education on campuses, not just for students, but for all campus stakeholders [and] all campus community members. So everyone is given tools and resources to prevent and even combat sexual violence on campus.”
Parker explained that these priorities were informed by feedback that they have received from other states and institutions that have more survivor-centered sexual assault policies.
Despite any reforms that might be coming, the next steps are unclear for Paul, who is currently in the process of appealing the Student Conduct Committee’s decision and rethinking her future at the university.
“I’m not currently enrolled at PSU right now,” Paul said. “I’m thinking of taking community college classes. I’m still playing it by ear whether I’ll take classes at PSU again.”