University of Portland students participate in a Green Dot bystander intervention training this fall. The intervention program was rebuilt as part of the university’s revamped Title IX education and outreach efforts. (Courtesy Becca Nerstad/University of Portland)
University of Portland students participate in a Green Dot bystander intervention training this fall. The intervention program was rebuilt as part of the university’s revamped Title IX education and outreach efforts. (Courtesy Becca Nerstad/University of Portland)

The push nationwide to bring the pervasive reality of sexual assault and harassment to light has sustained momentum over the past year. As the Catholic Church reckons with new revelations of past clergy sexual abuse, the #MeToo movement continues to underscore the scope of sexual misconduct and the accompanying anger and pain.

At the University of Portland, conversations about sex-based discrimination and violence have surfaced with force, as they have at colleges across the country, and some members within the school community have criticized U.P. for its responses to sexual misconduct allegations.

But in a way, the university began to engage intentionally with such concerns before they were part of the national dialogue. Two years ago this November, Holy Cross Father Mark Poorman, U.P. president, formed a committee to review the university’s policies, practices and procedures regarding sex discrimination and sexual violence.

Based on the committee’s report and recommendations issued this past January, an effort is underway to bring “significant and radical changes” to the school, according to Sandy Chung, Title IX coordinator for compliance and vice president of human resources. Title IX is a federal statute that protects people from discrimination based on their sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

The Title IX report found students believe a significant percentage of undergraduates, particularly female students and LGBTQ students, experience sexual harassment and assault at U.P. Students, the report found, acknowledge the education and support the university offers but feel improvement is needed.

In 2016, a former student claimed that after she was raped by a classmate, the alleged assailant was found not responsible through the schools’ formal conduct hearing process. This April, a U.P. tennis player described his sexual pursuits at the school during a sports award banquet. His comments were decried by Father Poorman and the student was removed from the roster.

Though both Chung and Matt Rygg, Title IX coordinator for education and associate vice president for student development, have conducted extensive Title IX work at other schools and have been employed at U.P. for a number of years, they recently took on the Title IX roles at the Catholic university.

“Serving on the Title IX committee it became clear we had a lot of work to do in terms of policies, education and programs — things we didn’t have the bandwidth to do previously,” said Rygg, who was eager to help Chung implement solutions.

The school has made progress over the past few months. It’s established an advisory committee to implement report recommendations; rebuilt the Title IX website; hired additional Title IX staff; and clarified consent and incapacitation policies. The report recommendations make education a priority, and outreach has extended to nearly all faculty and staff, in addition to students.

The university rebuilt its Green Dot bystander intervention program and earlier this month partnered with the athletic department to host a consent education and healthy relationship talk.

The school also has increased training for residence hall staff and facilitated conversations about intoxication and bystander intervention.

The report suggested the formation of student partnerships for Title IX initiatives, and Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA) and the Associated Students of the University of Portland were involved in hiring for Title IX positions.

Shelby Gavigan and Emma Covert, co-presidents of SASA, worked alongside the Title IX office this summer as it implemented changes.

“As students and advocates for students, we feel strongly that there is still much to be done,” said Covert in a statement emailed to the Sentinel.

The co-presidents’ priorities are to increase the amount of confidential resources and secure a confidential advocate position on campus. The hope is that the advocate would not be employed by the university, “as to offer a space that has absolutely no bias,” Covert explained. She said such an independent position is common on college campuses.

Hiring a confidential advocate is a current focus for the Title IX office. “Students have said there are great priests and nurses they can speak with confidentially,” said Rygg, but he recognizes the need for additional support. It’s not yet clear if the position will be independent or not. “We are open to exploring all different options and figuring out what would work best to support our students and community,” Chung said.

Though the report calls for a full-time Title IX coordinator and students repeatedly have asked for one, Chung said she believes, at least for now, sharing Title IX responsibilities with Rygg serves students better. Chung points out that the two were on the review committee and thus have a comprehensive understanding of the school’s needs and report recommendations; they also have a deep knowledge of the U.P. community.

Late last month, a number of faculty-organized events at the university addressed campus sexual violence head-on. A discussion was held to explore ways the university should prevent sexual assault and discrimination. It included personal stories of assault and the results of a survey conducted by two U.P. psychology professors.

The majority of survey-takers expressed a lack of trust in the university’s response to cases of sexual assault, harassment and stalking.

Sarina Saturn, who helped organize the confidential survey and shared its results and action ideas with the administration, said there’s been “a lot of movement in the past few months” to make the systems that support and protect students “stronger, more resilient and more transparent.” But she said progress is reflected not merely in new programs and education, but recent attempts, to “offer really compassionate listening.”

Chung, who with the Title IX team is trying to be more visible on campus, called the recent gatherings “very powerful, very positive.”

“What I appreciated was that they addressed concerns people have had or still have, but that they also included what we can do to be better as a community,” she said.

Rygg added that he hopes the survey doesn’t lead to the assumption that “the administration is not doing enough or that these issues are not important to us.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “We are working hard to make things better. We want to listen. We are listening.”