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Cheyenne Schoen/The Beacon
Clara Ell claims she was assaulted in her dorm room in Corrado Hall. “I’ll continue to speak out to elicit change” on campus, she said.  
 
 

Cheyenne Schoen/The Beacon

Clara Ell claims she was assaulted in her dorm room in Corrado Hall. “I’ll continue to speak out to elicit change” on campus, she said.  

 

 

Clara Ell has long felt sexual abuse and sexual assault needed more attention; one of the reasons the University of Portland freshman intends to major in social work and psychology is to help victims of such crimes. 

But on the evening of Sept. 30, Ell says she became a victim herself. After drinking heavily at a party, Ell claims she was raped in her dorm by a male classmate. Turning to her university for support and justice, Ell says she found neither. The alleged assailant was determined not responsible through the school’s formal conduct hearing process. When she appealed the ruling it was upheld by Holy Cross Father John Donato, vice president for student affairs. 

Now Ell — a Holy Cross School and St. Mary’s Academy alumna — is sharing her story to shed light on the process and personnel she believes failed her. She wants to inspire more victims to come forward and launch procedural and cultural changes regarding sexual assault at U.P. 

Ell’s claims emerge amid growing criticism of U.S. universities’ student conduct processes regarding sexual assault.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released a list of schools under investigation for possible violations of federal law related to the handling of sexual violence and harassment complaints. The initial list included 55 schools. That number has more than tripled.

Sexual assault has long been a pervasive but hidden pain at colleges large and small. One in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college, yet more than 90 percent of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service data.

For many U.P. students and alumni, the alleged incident and the university’s response has triggered sadness and outrage. And it prompted the school’s former wellness education and prevention program coordinator to claim Ell’s experience reflects a school unwilling to invest fully in violence prevention.  

A night of regrets

In an email sent to family and friends after the alleged incident, Ell wrote: “I reported this to the university with faith and hope that I’d receive help and some peace of mind. The outcome has been just the opposite.”

“Now my main goal is not to be silenced, to have this anger and pain and disappointment have an outcome,” she told the Catholic Sentinel. “I’ll continue to speak out to elicit change.” 

Father Donato sent a statement to the campus community Dec. 4. In it he affirmed the university’s commitment to student safety and his deep concern for victims of sexual assault. He said U.P. not only adheres to Title IX, a federal law requiring universities to follow certain procedures regarding sex discrimination and sexual violence, but also goes “well beyond the requirements.” 

While acknowledging there is a need to continuously review policies and procedures, Father Donato said he is “confident that the processes and procedures we have followed in Title IX cases at the university have been done with integrity, sensitivity and respect to all parties involved.”

He also noted that in November, Holy Cross Father Mark Poorman, president of the university, formed an independent ad hoc committee to review U.P.’s Title IX policies and procedures. 

In response to questions to Father Donato from the Sentinel, the university said the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal privacy law known as FERPA, prevents university employees from talking about specifics of the case.

After learning of the alleged assault, Ell’s father, Pat Ell, who is assistant director for leadership at U.P.’s Moreau Center and an alumnus of the university, sent an email to friends, co-workers and a group of students working to combat sexual assault on campus. The email gave a detailed account of the incident and criticized the U.P. community for the way the disciplinary process handled his daughter’s case. 

“We are proud and practicing Catholics, and we know this is wrong and we want to make sure all people in our community are protected,” said Ell about his decision to help his daughter share her story.

Pat Ell says the most egregious flaw in the process was that the hearing panel decided his daughter was able to give consent, despite of her level of intoxication.

On Friday, Sept. 30, Pat Ell recounts in his email, “Clara Ell made one big mistake: She got extremely drunk.” 

The freshman remembers drinking several beers and three shots of tequila, as well as chugging from a bag of wine multiple times. Several friends, who testified during the hearing, reported that she also chugged from a whiskey bottle a number of times. Ell weighs about 150 pounds, was an 18-year-old on that date and drank from around 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., according to Pat Ell’s email. Using Bloodalcoholcalculator.org, Ell’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was at least 0.30 percent. According to the National Institutes of Health, a BAC of around .3 percent is accompanied with “severe impairment,” and speech, memory and coordination are significantly impaired. Anything above .31 percent can be life-threatening.  

“Fundamentally, a person who is drunk cannot give sexual consent,” Pat Ell wrote in the email. 

After Ell’s friends gave her food and put her to bed in her dorm, the alleged attacker texted Ell and asked to come over. Ell responded no. 

“Tonight is not the best idea,” she said in a text message. 

“He went to her room anyway,” Pat Ell wrote. 

Justice denied?

On Sunday after the alleged attack, Clara Ell reported the sexual assault anonymously through U.P.’s Title IX website. 

Pat Ell says in his email that his daughter was soon contacted by the Title IX coordinator, Lauretta Frederking, who provided support and resources. Clara Ell met with Frederking Oct. 5. Two days later, she told her parents of the incident, and Oct. 9 she submitted her request for a formal disciplinary hearing. Her submission included transcripts of texts between herself and the alleged perpetrator, her statement, and the names of two witnesses. The U.P. Department of Public Safety responded by interviewing Ell and her witnesses and the accused perpetrator.

“After submitting her request for a formal hearing, Clara heard absolutely nothing from the interim student conduct coordinator (Chris Haug) — no confirmation that her request had been received, no follow up questions, no suggestions for how to review the conduct process, and no information about a possible hearing,” said Pat Ell in his email. More than two weeks later, on Oct. 25, she received an email from Haug informing her the hearing would take place Nov. 1, one month after the alleged assault.  

A 60-day time frame has been the federal standard in Title IX investigations in recent years, and U.P.’s student handbook, in compliance with Title IX, states that a formal hearing will be scheduled “within a reasonable time frame” or within 60 days, “unless exceptional circumstances exist warranting an extension.” 

Although the process fell within the 60 days, “to go 15 days with no contact, to feel so forgotten after such a traumatic event was painful,” Clara Ell told the Sentinel. “The university can’t say they are working hard to get rid of interpersonal violence if they don’t contact someone for 15 days. I know people caught drinking who (have a hearing) that week. It seems like a sexual assault would be a little more of a priority.”

One week after the hearing, Haug presented Ell with the decision of the disciplinary hearing panel. They found the respondent “not responsible” for sexual assault.  

Ell submitted a formal appeal to Father Donato Nov. 11. Her appeal was based on what she claimed to be an erroneous initial decision and 10 procedural errors. The errors included: the “extraordinarily long” time between the request for a disciplinary hearing and the hearing itself; a three-person hearing panel that included Haug’s subordinate, which she argues could threaten impartiality; and an apparent lack of consideration for Ell’s blood alcohol content.

In her appeal, Ell quotes the initial decision letter that reads: “Both parties stated that this behavior was consistent with their past physical contact.” 

“This is not true,” said Ell in her appeal. “(The respondent) and I had never engaged in sexual intercourse prior to the incident. We did have a brief, romantic relationship, and it definitely did not include sexual intercourse.”

The day before Thanksgiving, Father Donato sent an email to Ell denying the appeal.

“Father Donato did not specifically address any of the 10 procedural errors that Clara had articulated,” said Pat Ell in his email. 

Although sexual assault is a felony, Ell said she did not go to police because she trusted the university to handle it. Pat Ell says the family was unsure of how much the police could do because his daughter did not receive a medical examination immediately following the incident.

“Sadly, most people don’t report it at all,” said Pat Ell. “Even if they report it to someone, they often are seeking personal help and don’t want to file a formal complaint because they feel shame. Even if they know it’s not their fault, they often just feel really guilty.

“For our daughter,” he added, “she really didn’t want anyone to go to prison. She thought he’d get suspended or expelled and hoped that would be a wake-up call.”

‘Trying to get by’

Knowing the alleged assailant is still on campus is tough for Ell. “I’m constantly on edge walking around campus, jittery and worried that I might bump into him,” she said. “And it makes academics more difficult because I’m so preoccupied.” 

Her father said she was a straight-A student at St. Mary’s who played multiple sports and “was this happy, energetic kid. … Now she’s trying to get by.” 

Tiegan Fortes, who attended St. Mary’s with Ell and is now a classmate at U.P., called Ell “an extremely loyal and caring person.”

She said Ell doesn’t usually ask much of other people for herself, “so that’s why her confrontation with the university is so powerful.” She “really wants more for the university, to change the culture,” said Fortes.

Teri-Kay Johnson, one of Ell’s former Holy Cross teachers and a friend of the family, agreed that Ell is not someone who draws attention to herself, but is doing so now to “make a difference for people yet to come (at the university).” Johnson said the attention in this situation is not always positive, but Ell is doing it “because she stands up for what she believes in.”

Johnson, who recalled Ell as a positive presence with strong leadership qualities at Holy Cross, said the young woman is a notably honest person who is “willing to admit her faults.”  

“She really is that kind of person who is so caring about others that she wouldn’t ever do something to hurt someone else,” said Johnson, breaking into tears. 

In a sentiment echoed by his daughter, Pat Ell said his goal in speaking out was not to shame the university or “create a hostile environment for anyone.” 

Instead, he hopes to help “support a community wherein all people are safe and do not have to fear violence.”

A member of Holy Cross Parish whose work at U.P. has been to engage students in service and social justice, Pat Ell says the university’s response to his daughter’s rape “stands in sharp contrast to who we really are.”

“We want the school to be what it’s supposed to be,” he said, adding that it is filled with “fantastic professors and caring people.” 

Pat Ell acknowledged that “there is a much bigger story here.” It goes beyond one administrator and may be a more systemic problem at the school.

Broader claims

On Dec. 4, Kristina Houck, a U.P. alumna and the former wellness education and prevention program coordinator, sent an email to a number of university administrators, including Father Poorman, Father Donato and Frederking, the Title IX coordinator. 

Houck acknowledged that she does not “have all of the information related to this case and that due to the need to protect privacy under Title IX it is impossible for me — and others — to have all of the information.”

That said, she continues, “the information that has been shared by Pat and Clara concerns me greatly. It concerns me because of the horrific impact it is having on Clara and her family and because it points toward many of the concerns I had while working to prevent and respond to interpersonal violence on campus.”

“In all candor,” she adds, “I left my position (in 2015) … at UP because it became increasingly clear to me that the university was unwilling to truly invest in preventing violence on campus and was resistant to critically reviewing and improving the ways in which incidents of violence were being handled.”

In her nearly 1,400-word email, Houck recounts how in 2011 a grant of $158,000 was awarded to the university from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. 

According to an October story by Frederking, published in The Beacon — the U.P. student newspaper — the university used the funding to, among other efforts, launch the bystander intervention program, called Green Dot, and create Community Against Violence, “a partnership of UP staff, faculty and community partners dedicated to fostering a campus community free from all forms of violence,” wrote Frederking.

The grant also “allowed the university’s policies, practices and procedures to receive a vigorous review from national experts” and for a number of community members to attend a national training program on understanding and implementing Title IX.

Although Houck said the university benefited from close consultation with national experts who helped revise campus response procedures, she believes that U.P. has not allocated sufficient resources to ensure adequate staffing and training. 

After listing a number of actions the university should take, she writes that she loves the university and its mission. “Unfortunately, the university is failing to live up to its values and ideals,” she said.

In reply to the Sentinel’s request for a response to Houck’s email, the university highlighted five ways it is addressing sexual violence with “integrity, compassion and fairness.”

Steps taken include: expanding violence prevention and victim services; becoming one of the first Oregon universities to adopt Green Dot; and expanding educational and prevention programs, including implementing a required online course on health-related issues, substance abuse and sexual violence. The email response, sent Dec. 7, also affirmed U.P.’s Community Against Violence partnership and its “commitment to maintain compliance with Title IX regulations.”

The university said the focus of the ad hoc committee established by Father Poorman will be to review aspects of Title IX at the university, including issues of training, roles of hearing officers and investigators, and support for reporting and responding parties. In addition to gathering facts and input, committee members will interview national experts and conduct a comparative analysis across similar institutions.

Seeking action

As Pat Ell tries to rally for change on campus, he’s grappling with what he believes happened to his child.

“It’s hard to process; any person who tells you they’ve been raped, you feel shock, you feel sick,” he said.  “For us it was giving her a hug, telling her we love her. Then you ask, ‘How can we help?’” 

Pat Ell still hopes his daughter might receive an independent hearing through the university and that individuals will be held accountable for not performing their jobs properly. Foremost, though, he’d like the overall process to improve. 

Clara Ell said she’d love to see the university reconsider her case, but she’s currently focused on sharing her story “to create change.” She’s speaking with other students and survivors about actions they can take, including forming the school’s first survivor support group.

There is a petition created by two U.P. alumni circulating the school community. It argues that Ell “deserves a legitimate case review”; asks for an apology for Ell for the delayed response to her hearing request; and calls for an external audit of U.P.’s process for investigating sexual assault. As of Dec. 12 there were around 2,500 petition signatures.  

Protesting students holding signs lined a campus pathway Dec. 9 as guests showed up for a donors dinner.

Ell said the assault and what she sees as a subsequent lack of justice from the university caused her to question her faith and beliefs, but that she’s also felt solace and support on campus, especially during dorm Masses. “I’ve found comfort from the community,” she said. 

Ell said she feels compelled to continue to speak out so the “university doesn’t think they dodged a bullet and not change.”

She acknowledged that change takes time but begins with admitting there is a problem. “I hope my experience will encourage U.P. to think more mindfully about what kind of community we want to have,” said Ell. 

“Prayers are deeply appreciated,” she added, “but I’m also really looking for action.”