Report: Oregon students vulnerable to sexual harassment

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Students at Oregon’s public universities are vulnerable to repeat cases of sexual harassment because schools fail to tell them about confirmed cases of sexual harassment, according to the results of an investigation published in the Statesman Journal of Salem.

The newspaper’s investigation also found that any punishments for confirmed harassers are usually kept from the general public, and that public universities have not done comprehensive surveys on the number of students who get sexually harassed by professors and peers.

And, according to the newspaper, many students do not know the proper procedure for filing a sexual harassment complaint.

The newspaper began investigating the issue of sexual harassment on campus after it reported on a case at Western Oregon University, in which a former professor was accused of sexually harassing his graduate student.

In that case, Western Oregon officials refused to release details about disciplinary action taken against Professor Gary Welander.

The records are part of the professor’s confidential personnel file and exempt from public disclosure, officials said.

The Statesman Journal asked Oregon Attorney General Hardy Myers to order the university to release the documents, citing the public’s right to know.

But the newspaper’s request was denied on grounds that the records are not subject to disclosure under Oregon’s public-records law.

Sexual harassment is part of a hidden, mostly unreported, wave of victimization that occurs on college campuses and mostly targets young women, said Phyllis Barkhurst, executive director of the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force.

“Talk to somebody who’s being sexually harassed – they see no benefit in reporting,” Barkhurst said. They feel like it targets them, that it labels them, especially if they’re trying for a career in academia.”

As it stands now, repeat harassers can remain invisible within campus communities, said Kathleen Moore, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University.

“People say that what you can’t see can’t hurt you, but that is simply not the case,” she said. “The thing that is most troubling for us is how we fail in our duty to warn students because of all the personnel rules that sustain all this secrecy and silence.”

Still, sexual harassment complaints are relatively rare at Oregon’s seven public universities, according to school statistics.

Since 1999, the schools have received 39 student complaints of sexual harassment against faculty or staff, according to public records obtained by the Statesman Journal.

Harassment was found in 22 of those cases, resulting in sanctions ranging from written reprimands to firings and formal apologies.

Oregon State’s Moore said complaint data doesn’t reflect the reality of campus harassment because it reveals only “the tip of the iceberg.”

In the absence of hard data, Moore uses a simple measurement technique: a show of hands.

“Our faculty women’s network had a meeting recently, for example, and people asked a question: How many of you know about sexual harassment that is going on right now? I would guess about a third of the people raised their hands,” Moore said.

Still, change could be on the way. After the Western Oregon University story broke last winter, Gov. Ted Kulongoski ordered a systemwide review of sexual harassment policies and procedures at the state’s seven public universities.

On June 2, reports from the seven universities – along with recommendations for change – are due to come before the governor and the state Board of Higher Education.