USC Students Say Sexual Abuse Hotline Was A Disappointment

Former USC student Marie Nowacki (center) is joined by other former students alleging abuse by former USC gynecologist George Tyndall. She and others say a hotline created by USC was inadequate. (Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

In May, as a stream of abuse allegations against former USC gynecologist George Tyndall turned into a fast-moving river, USC created a telephone hotline for victims to report what had happened to them.

In promoting the hotline on its website, the university said, "We understand how difficult this may be, and we pledge to handle your outreach with compassion and sensitivity."

But a number of women who called the hotline told LAist the experience left them feeling a mixture of anger and betrayal. Almost all of the two dozen students we interviewed talked of long waits, a lack of emotional support and few follow-ups (though a few said they did get follow up calls and referrals to counseling).

"THEY WEREN'T PARTICULARLY COMFORTING."

"I called the hotline, it took me hours," said Ariel Sobel, one of more than 400 current and former USC students who sought help.

"I had to fill out forms to get my own medical records," she said. "It was a very delayed process and I was terrified; they weren't particularly comforting."

When news of Tyndall's alleged abuse broke, Sobel started talking to her friends. Many told her they also had been treated by him and said they'd been touched inappropriately.

In a nearly three-decade career at USC, Tyndall saw about 10,000 patients, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, which has an open criminal investigation against him. Hundreds of women have filed lawsuits against Tyndall, accusing him of performing improper pelvic exams, making crude sexual comments during appointments and taking pictures of them naked. Tyndall has denied he did anything wrong.

Ariel Sobel created Justice for Trojans earlier this year to help fellow students who had been abused by former USC campus gynecologist George Tyndall. (Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

"SHOULD I JUST KEEP IT TO MYSELF?"

For senior Mai Mizuno, news of the allegations against Tyndall brought back memories of her appointments with him during her first semester at USC. She said she saw him a few times and he was physically inappropriate with her.

(Here is our LADYist column explaining what to expect when you visit the gynecologist for the first time)

Fast forward to earlier this year, when Mizuno received an email from USC President Max Nikias sent to all USC students announcing the hotline.

"I didn't know if I should tell people that, hey, I was a victim too," she said.

She summoned the courage to call the hotline.

"I thought it would be a really good thing to call in, and I really trusted the administration and the steps they were taking," Mizuno said. But the experience of calling made her more anxious.

"That is so much effort and then just being on hold for an hour, and every few minutes oscillating between, do I really want to do something like this or should I just keep it to myself?" she said.

Mizuno eventually decided to submit information on the USC web site. The more she learned about how complaints against Tyndall went unaddressed, she said, the more she felt betrayed by the university.

"I HAVEN'T HEARD ANYTHING FROM THEM SINCE."

In October, lawyers for 93 women held a press conference across the street from USC to announce lawsuits filed against Tyndall — for abuse — and USC — for negligence.

Fifteen plaintiffs attended the press conference. Nearly all said they called the hotline and had off-putting experiences.

USC student Daniella Mohazab had a mixed experience calling the USC hotline set up for abuse victims. (Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

"I called them as soon as I saw the first story," said Grace Bandeen, a recent USC graduate.

"Clearly they just had standard staff answering the phones," she said. "They expressed disbelief, and they said, 'Thank you for sharing,' and that's that, and I haven't heard anything from them since. They never followed up, no calls, no emails."

Some of Bandeen's fellow plaintiffs said they were taken aback by the difference in tone between how the USC hotline handled their calls and the way police investigators talked to them.

"I was struck by the humanity and the kindness of the officer who took my testimony," said Dana Loewy. "The first thing out of his mouth was, 'I am very sorry that this happened to you.' That melted my heart. Sometimes it takes very little to be heard and to be acknowledged."

CAN A UNIVERSITY CARE LIKE A PERSON?

It's not unreasonable for college students to expect their school to take care of them, said Occidental College Professor Caroline Heldman, who studies how universities respond to abuse allegations.

"They are eating their meals there, they are living there, they are learning there, they develop community there," she said, adding that schools have a built-in disadvantage when trying to deal with these kinds of situations.

"I'm not entirely sure that any institution, this kind of nameless, faceless, in some sense corporate model, can truly care about its constituents in a way that feels personal and actually is personal," said Heldman.

Several women said they did get support from USC's sexual violence prevention center.

Another source of help came from Ariel Sobel, one of those who found little comfort when she called the hotline. She created a one-woman help center and called it Justice for Trojans.

"There was a point where it was like a second-time job, because you could call me at any point in the day and you could text me, message me, and I would immediately get you whatever you needed," she said.

Sobel refers women to mental health counselors and lawyers, and talks to those who just need to talk.

"I've stayed up late at night with people crying, being like, 'I don't know how to tell my daughter that I've been sexually abused and I don't know how to prevent her from going through something like this,'" she said. Sobel gave out her telephone number and returns the calls, she said, because she believes in a communal responsibility to help people heal.

WHY DOES THE WAY YOU'RE TREATED ON A PHONE LINE MATTER?

Before USC and George Tyndall made headlines, it was USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar.

"Out of every crime that's committed on a surviving victim, sexual assault has the longest-term ramifications," Rachael Denhollander, one of the USA gymnasts allegedly abused by Nassar, told a news conference. She's become an advocate and says abuse victims have high rates of suicide and substance abuse.

"When a victim discloses publicly, when they're believed, when they're protected, when their voices are heard, that incidence of long-term ramification is drastically reduced," said Denhollander.

USC says it's heard the feedback and has made changes. To improve the caller's experience, the university says it has replaced the hotline with a new number answered by a company that specializes in dealing with sexual abuse.

"Our policy is to respond to every caller with compassion and return every message promptly," USC said in a written statement sent to LAist.

"We deeply regret if there was any person who called and did not have the responsive experience they deserved," it said. "Trained staff members are individually assessing each report and referring appropriate situations for additional investigation. We continue to provide free counseling for students who want it with a provider of their choosing."


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