Occidental Controversy Intensifies With Allegations Against Longtime Athletic Trainer
Caroline Heldman, a professor who has been outspoken in her criticism of Occidental's handling of issues related to sexual assault and harassment.
When Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Felch was fired on March 14, he was working on two potentially explosive stories about Occidental College. Since that time, more details have emerged about one of the stories, regarding allegations that the school's former longtime athletic trainer, John Sweet, sexually harassed and improperly touched students for years.
As that story unfolds, so too do claims that the school has been surveilling faculty who have strongly criticized the way that sexual harassment and assault issues are handled by Oxy's leadership.
These stories are in addition to previous claims against Occidental, all denied by the college, including allegations by students that the administration discouraged them from reporting rapes, didn't accurately tally the number of sexual assaults occurring on campus, and didn't inform the campus community - as is required by law - when sexual assaults against students had taken place nearby.
According to sources at the school, three young men last week settled a case against Occidental College in which they alleged that Sweet acted sexually inappropriately toward them. Details of the case haven't been made public, and the alleged victims' lawyer, Irwin Zalkin, insisted to L.A. Weekly that the case was "still in mediation."
A number of other students, dating back to 2008, have come forward separately with allegations against Sweet, who worked in the athletic department at Occidental for 37 years before leaving his position in 2013.
Sweet, during a brief interview in front of his home, told the Weekly that he was informed "through the college's attorney" of complaints against him by members of the men's swim team and the women's soccer team. "I have no further comment," Sweet said.
The most recent alleged incidents involved members of the school's 2012-13 men's swim team. A former student who competed on the team and wished to remain anonymous tells the Weekly that Sweet had a reputation for inappropriately touching athletes while stretching them out - something the student says he himself experienced.
"It was one of those stretches where you're lying down on the table and you have one leg up in the air," he says. "He had one leg holding my shin and the other hand was on my quad. ... He would move his hand further down my leg until his thumb was, like, right on my groin. This is really unusual - it isn't normally what's supposed to be happening."
The former student says that Sweet would "[look] at me directly" while moving his hand up the student's leg, whereas "most trainers will kind of look off into the distance." He also said it was as if Sweet would "do this stuff to provoke some sort of reaction, to see if you would respond."
Athletes on the men's swim team talked to one another in the locker room about Sweet's behavior, according to the former student.
"A kid came back once and was like, 'Wow, I totally just got felt up by John Sweet,'?" he says. "It was a pretty regular thing, I guess. People made a conscious effort to avoid going to see him."
Prior to these alleged incidents involving male swimmers, young women from the school's soccer team reported inappropriate touching and comments by the athletic trainer. One such complaint came from Emily Niklaus, who graduated in 2011.
Niklaus hurt her ankle on the playing field in 2008, and went into the school's training center to see Sweet. But in the process of her ongoing therapy, according to a complaint later filed by her father, Sweet took her leg in his hand, held it, and told her she had a "sexy thigh."
On another occasion, according to an interview Niklaus gave the campus newspaper, Occidental Weekly, Sweet asked Niklaus what kind of underwear she was wearing. "I knew this wasn't normal," Niklaus told the paper.
Jesi Sasaki, who played soccer with Niklaus, says that she witnessed Sweet target another soccer player with unwanted touching and inappropriate comments.
"One of my friends at the time was feeling very uncomfortable about her interactions" with him, Sasaki says. "He was kind of inappropriate, making inappropriate remarks."
One afternoon, when she and her friend were alone with Sweet, the former athletic trainer reached out and touched the straps of her friend's tank top and made a comment about her appearance.
"It was like I wasn't even in the room - he was just totally into her," Sasaki says. "It felt very uncomfortable, and I knew it was very inappropriate."
Sasaki stepped out of the room, and when her friend followed a few minutes later, "she was visibly upset," Sasaki says. "She looked like she was, like, sick."
After that, Sasaki, Niklaus and the third friend approached the Occidental administration with their concerns about Sweet. "It was an ongoing issue," Sasaki says. "We would hear stories from the football team, too - it almost became a joke. Like, it's this known thing that he's just creepy."
In 2009, Philip Niklaus - Emily Niklaus' father - filed a formal Title IX complaint with the school, in which he detailed Sweet's alleged inappropriate comments to his daughter. The complaint was sent to the school's Title IX coordinator, as well as the president, the chairman of the board and the dean of students.
In his complaint, Niklaus wrote that remarks made by Sweet were "in direct conflict with Occidental College's written sexual harassment policy, which includes in its definition of inappropriate behavior 'remarks of a sexual nature about a person's body.'?"
When colleges receive complaints of sexual harassment of students, says Michele Dauber, a professor of law at Stanford Law School, they have certain responsibilities under Title IX, a federal regulation that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex.
"They have to intervene effectively to stop the abuse," she says, "prevent its recurrence, and remedy the effects on the victim. Every school has to be able to do those things."
That year, 2009, according to athletic director Jaime Hoffman in an interview with the campus paper, Sweet was required to attend sexual harassment training. Students say he was relieved from working with the women's soccer team, but he was allowed to remain in his position as athletic trainer at Oxy.
The young women who complained to the school against Sweet, Sasaki says, still had to see him in training facilities.
"It was a little awkward," Sasaki says. "Even though he wasn't in charge of women's soccer, he was still pretty much our trainer. We would have to go in and see him - he would have to clear us [to play]. It wasn't like we were clear of him."
Philip Niklaus, meanwhile, says that he never received a formal answer from the school to his complaint: "I never heard a response from anyone," he says. "I was outraged. The guy's a predator." The college denies that it "failed to respond to Ms. Niklaus' concerns."
The former swim team athlete says he also approached the administration with his concerns. Once this athlete realized how widespread the problem was, he says, he talked to his coach, Shea Manning. "I told him I thought it was a little odd that there were so many similar complaints about this," he says.
According to the student, Manning took the problem to the rest of the athletic department - but what happened from there isn't clear. "I trust my coach, and I know he brought it up," the former student says. "But I don't think it went anywhere after."
Manning did not return several phone calls and emails from L.A. Weekly.
Some weeks later, John Sweet resigned, campus sources say.
Movindri Reddy, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental, serves as a student adviser. Reddy says that after the allegations were made in 2009, Sweet should have been let go.
"I don't understand how, in 2009, he wasn't fired," she says. "You have a coach that is inappropriate with students - he is a conditioning coach. They might have assumed this was quite widespread. Instead, he came back to school, and he continued to do this. I can confirm that."
Reddy adds that it's still not clear what prompted Sweet's resignation, nor were faculty given any details about it.
"He resigned under very suspicious circumstances," she says. "We were not informed. He just left. He wasn't there anymore."
"They were just trying to cover their asses," Sasaki says of what came of her meeting with Oxy officials.
The swim team athlete feels the same. "I think this is another case of it on campus," he says, "brush it under the rug where no one would notice. And I think they did a good job of it in this case: He had the run of the campus and nobody really thought much of it."
Over the past year, tensions have grown to a boiling point between faculty members such as professor Caroline Heldman, who have demanded reform of Oxy's sexual assault policies and practices - and college administrators who feel that the college is being made to look bad. Some college employees have become increasingly suspicious that campus administrators are surveilling them.
Two federal complaints filed by students against Occidental triggered a U.S. Department of Education investigation into the school. One complaint alleges that the school discouraged students from reporting rape and that it wasn't complying with the Clery Act, which requires that schools publicly report any sexual assault allegations. The other alleges that the school isn't complying with Title IX.
According to a source at Occidental, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the school made a disturbing request last summer: James Uhrich, a representative from the college's Information Technology Services department, allegedly asked that some staff members hand over their laptop computers and personal cellphones. Uhrich referred the Weekly to Oxy spokesman Jim Tranquada, who declined to comment.
"[Uhrich] started going around to staff, giving them little notice," the source says, "saying to them, 'I need your computer, I need your laptop, I need your phone.' They would copy the hard drive of those computers' laptops and the memory card of the phone and give them back to them."
Some Oxy staff apparently handed over their personal phones, the Occidental source tells the Weekly, after Uhrich allegedly told them to consider whether they had done any college business over their personal phones and, if they had, to turn in their devices.
According to Heldman, an associate professor of politics at the university, Uhrich told the Oxy staffers that the request for their phones came from the U.S. Department of Education. But Heldman says that when she approached the federal department, it denied having ordered the collection of personal phones, telling her, "We absolutely did not request this."
Faculty later were told that the request came from Occidental's lawyers, according to Heldman. The college did not respond to the Weekly's query on this issue.
Meanwhile, it's still not clear whether Occidental is properly tracking sexual assaults on campus. As the Weekly reported in its March 27 online story, "Break-ins and Cover-ups at Occidental? L.A. Times' Jason Felch Firing Raises More Questions," Occidental has claimed that it had seven sexual assaults in 2012. Yet the Weekly's review last week of documents at the campus security office revealed that only four had been reported.
In a recent email to the Weekly, Oxy spokesman Tranquada explained the discrepancy by conceding, "In 2012, out of concern for student confidentiality, the Dean of Students Office did not always communicate to Campus Safety when a student initiated the sexual misconduct process or otherwise reported a sexual assault. ... This practice has since been changed, which is one of the improvements we've made to our [federally required] Clery reporting."
In several meetings in 2012, dean of students Barbara Avery said that 34 sexual assaults and rapes had occurred on the campus that year. But in his email, Tranquada told the Weekly that the dean was "speaking informally," not citing an official number, and was actually quoting sex assault and rape data from the 2011-12 academic year, not the 2012 calendar year. "No one could have anticipated the level of intense scrutiny that her remark since has been subjected to," Tranquada wrote.
Now the school is trying to repair its image nationally: In recent months Oxy's leaders have hired two law firms and a specialized "crisis management" firm, which conducted an internal investigation of Oxy's practices.
That crisis management firm, G.F. Bunting + Co., pushed the L.A. Times in March to correct a Dec. 7 story by investigative reporter Jason Felch, in which he reported that the college had failed to report some sexual assaults as mandated by the federal Clery Act. The Times, in dramatic fashion, simultaneously announced that it had fired Felch, saying he'd become romantically involved with a source on campus.
Instead of quelling the controversy, these efforts put the story back in the news: National outlets - including the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wrap and Buzzfeed - picked up on the story.
Some questioned why Felch was fired - and some turned attention to the campus controversies on which he'd been reporting.
That has galvanized critics of Oxy's administration.
"I have seen a huge increase in the number of students who complain" about the problems on campus, Reddy says. "It's a sea change."
Juliet Suess, who served as editor-in-chief of the Occidental Weekly last year, claims that school leaders are scrambling to contain stories about sexual assault that keep popping up. "It's like trying to contain a wildfire," she says, "that has an endless supply of oxygen."
Follow the writer on Twitter @JessicaPauline.
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