Education Department Investigating USC's Handling Of Sexual Harassment Allegations

Originally published on June 11, 2018 8:22 pm

Updated 7:50 p.m. ET

The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights announced Monday it is investigating the University of Southern California's handling of sexual harassment allegations against gynecologist Dr. George Tyndall. In a statement, the office said it will look into how USC handled "reports and complaints of sexual harassment during pelvic exams as early as 1990 that were not fully investigated by the University until spring 2016 and that the University did not disclose to OCR during an earlier investigation."

Tyndall is the former university gynecologist accused of sexually inappropriate behavior with students during their medical exams. The Los Angeles Police Department is now investigating 52 complaints about Tyndall, which range from unnecessary touching in the course of pelvic exams to inappropriate sexual comments.

USC faculty, alumni, staff, students, and even the Chinese consulate have been increasingly demanding accountability from the university in how it handled the case of Tyndall.

On Saturday, about two dozen University of Southern California students and alumni marched from the school's student health center to the university's main quad chanting "USC transparency." They called for help for Tyndall's alleged victims and a full accounting of USC's possible role in covering up his actions.

"We are at a breaking point," alumna Viva Symanski, who alleges Tyndall sexually abused her, said at a podium. "Things have to change. USC must change."

Last summer, in a confidential deal, Tyndall was allowed to resign from the university with a financial payout. USC didn't report the allegations against Tyndall to state medical authorities, nor did it inform his patients. His alleged sexual misconduct is thought to have gone on for years — he worked at the school for nearly three decades before his suspension in 2016.

"I think the university, as much as I love it, was extremely complicit in this," said Ariel Sobel, a USC graduate who helped organize the march. She's the co-founder of Justice for Trojans, a group trying to help women who say they were abused by Tyndall.

"Some are asking for legal support," said Sobel. "Some are looking for other survivors to talk to. Some are looking for therapy. Some just want to have someone talk on the phone with them and listen to them."

Chinese students at USC are particularly concerned about the allegations against Tyndall.

In recent years, the university has aggressively recruited students from China. About 5,500 are currently enrolled at the school.

"We Chinese students we come from a relatively conservative culture," said Andy Zhang, a sophomore and member of the Chinese Student Association.

Zhang explained students from China who were Tyndall's patients might be reluctant to report sexual misconduct because of language issues and cultural differences.

"It could be more difficult for our students, when they run into uncomfortable situations, it can be difficult for them to speak out," said Zhang, who went on to say Chinese student groups are reaching out to possible victims to offer assistance.

Meanwhile, the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles has demanded a full investigation by USC into Tyndall and possible abuse of Chinese nationals by him.

Pressure on the university is also coming from USC's faculty and staff. After 200 of them signed a letter demanding the resignation of school president Max Nikias, he stepped down last month.

"So it's happened once and I think the issue now is to make sure that it doesn't happen again," said LaVonna Blair Lewis with USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy.

Echoing others on campus, Blair Lewis says she believes in recent years the university has been too focused on fundraising and boosting its place in academic rankings instead of protecting students. She hopes priorities now change.

"And, again, what are we going to do to make sure that we're not having this same story being told with different names?" said Blair Lewis.

USC didn't respond to a request for an interview. Instead it sent a statement about measures it is taking to protect students. These measures include educating students seeking gynecological services about their rights and how to report complaints.

The school has also established a hotline and started an investigation into Tyndall.

The LAPD has launched its own investigation into dozens of cases involving Tyndall. The university also faces a growing number of lawsuits, including from celebrity attorney Gloria Allred. This week, she said, she'll add more than 20 additional plaintiffs to a suit she's filed against USC.

"It should not have taken decades for these women to finally be protected," said Allred.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is launching an investigation into the University of Southern California for its handling of reports of sexual harassment by the school's former gynecologist. Dr. George Tyndall is accused of harassing and assaulting women during pelvic exams for nearly 30 years. Now the Los Angeles Police Department is investigation at least 52 complaints involving Tyndall, and the University faces multiple lawsuits from former students. Saul Gonzalez from member station KCRW has our report.

SAUL GONZALEZ, BYLINE: On Saturday, about two dozen USC students and alumni marched from the school student health center to the campus's main quad.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) USC transparency, USC transparency.

GONZALEZ: Their demands - help for Tyndall's alleged victims and a full accounting of USC's possible role in covering up his actions.

VIVA SYMANSKI: We are at a breaking point. Things have to change. USC must change.

GONZALEZ: That's alum Viva Symanski. Tyndall's alleged sexual misconduct is thought to have gone on for years. He worked at the school for nearly three decades before his suspension in 2016. Last summer, he was allowed to quietly resign from USC with a financial payout. The university didn't report Tyndall to state medical authorities, nor did it contact any of Tyndall's patients.

ARIEL SOBEL: I think the university, as much as I love it, was extremely complicit in this, and I think they were accessories to crimes.

GONZALEZ: Ariel Sobel, who was a patient of Tyndall's while a student, has established Justice for Trojans. It's a group offering help to women who feel they might have been victimized by Tyndall over the years.

SOBEL: So some are asking for legal support. Some are looking for others survivors to talk to. Some are looking for therapy. Some just want to, like, have someone talk on the phone with them and, like, listen to them.

GONZALEZ: One group of students particularly concerned are those from China. In recent years, USC has aggressively recruited Chinese students, and about 5,500 are currently enrolled at the school. Andy Zhang is a sophomore and a member of the Chinese Student Association.

ANDY ZHANG: We Chinese students - we come from, I would say, a relatively conservative culture.

GONZALEZ: He says students from China who were Tyndall's patients might be reluctant to report sexual misconduct.

ZHANG: You know, when they run into uncomfortable situations, it can be more difficult for them to speak out.

GONZALEZ: The Chinese consulate in Los Angeles has demanded a full investigation. Pressure on the university is also coming from USC faculty and staff. After 200 of them signed a letter demanding the resignation of school president Max Nikias, he stepped down last month. Among those who signed - LaVonna Blair Lewis with USC's School of Public Policy.

LAVONNA BLAIR LEWIS: This happened once, and I think the issue now is to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

GONZALEZ: She thinks in recent years, the university might have focused too much attention on fundraising and boosting its academic rankings instead of protecting students. Blair Lewis hopes priorities now change.

BLAIR LEWIS: And again, what are we going to do to make sure that we're not having this same story being told with different names?

GONZALEZ: USC didn't respond to a request for an interview. Instead, it sent us a statement about measures it's taking to protect students. They include educating those seeking gynecological services about their rights and how to report complaints. In addition to the LAPD investigation, the campus faces a growing number of lawsuits, including from celebrity attorney Gloria Allred.

GLORIA ALLRED: It should not have taken decades for these women to finally be protected.

GONZALEZ: This week, Allred will add more than 20 additional plaintiffs to a suit she's already filed against the school. For NPR News, I'm Saul Gonzalez in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.