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New sexual assault allegations come to light as Utah State music department investigation wraps up

A male former student says he was groped by a music professor on an overnight trip, and a police report describes the alleged assault of a teenage student by a USU music department employee

Whitney McPhie Griffith poses for a photo in her sister's home, where she lives in the guest house, in Los Altos, California, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Whitney McPhie Griffith poses for a photo in her sister's home, where she lives in the guest house, in Los Altos, California, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Cayce Clifford, for the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After a nearly seven-week investigation into Utah State University's handling of allegations of sexual misconduct within the music department, independent investigators are preparing to release a report of their findings and recommendations on Friday morning, according to Tim Vitale, a spokesman for the university.

The Deseret News talked to 25 former and current Utah State music students, several of whom have reported their experiences to the investigators in recent weeks.

Details gathered by the Deseret News include:

  • A male former student who said he was groped by a music professor on an overnight trip in 2006;
  • A police report from the 1990s describing the alleged sexual assault of a teenage student by a USU music department employee, who is now a music faculty member at the university;
  • A former piano student, Whitney McPhie Griffith, who said she was raped by a piano instructor in 2009; and
  • Thirteen women — current and former USU piano students between 1998 and now — who said they had been subjected to various forms of mistreatment by faculty members, ranging from sexism to harassment to intimidation.

Five of the 25 students who spoke to the Deseret News said they formally reported their experiences to university officials at the time.

"We want to reiterate that we are committed to finding out what happened," said Amanda DeRito, Utah State University Sexual Misconduct Information Coordinator, in an email to the Deseret News.

Vitale said due to the independent nature of the investigation, the university cannot speak to the contents of the report before its release on Friday.

"There are a number of recommendations in the report," said Vitale."We plan to address each of the recommendations made by the independent investigators."

Prior to the independent investigation into the music department, Utah State was already under fire for its handling of Title IX complaints. Title IX is a federal law that charges universities with ensuring students receive education without sex-based discrimination.

Last January, the Department of Justice began investigating how the university responds to reports of sexual assault, after three students (not associated with the music department) were charged or convicted in high-profile sexual assaults alleged to have occured between 2013 and 2015.

Among them is Torrey Green, a former USU linebacker who was accused of sexual assault by seven women and is now awaiting trial, and Jason Relopez, a former student and fraternity member who was sentenced to 12 months in jail and ordered to complete sex offender treatment after pleading guilty to attempted rape and attempted forcible sexual abuse.

The Department of Justice inquiry at Utah State is one of hundreds of investigations federal officials are conducting across the country. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are currently 337 open Title IX investigations being conducted by the Department of Education at colleges and universities in the United States, including at the University of Utah, Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University.

With the results of the investigation expected Friday morning, former Utah State music students told the Deseret News they feel the time is right to tell their stories, and hope that by doing so, they can help create positive change at USU and other colleges.

"Music should inspire, and be life-giving," said Rachel Speedie, who was a piano student at Utah State from 1999 to 2004. "A teacher should nourish their students in every way possible, in order to see them thrive to the best of their abilities."

Several current USU music students said they thought the administration has responded well to allegations and made increased efforts to ensure students feel safe and listened to. Some of those students said they felt the problems were limited to select faculty members in the department and were not widespread.

"I am deeply concerned about the serious issues former students have raised about the music department," USU president Noelle Cockett said in a statement following the public allegations made in February. In her words, the school would, "take whatever action necessary to support and protect our students."

Whitney McPhie Griffith poses for a photo in her sister's home, where she lives in the guest house, in Los Altos, California, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Whitney McPhie Griffith poses for a photo in her sister's home, where she lives in the guest house, in Los Altos, California, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Cayce Clifford, for the Deseret News

The investigation

The music department investigation was prompted by allegations made by Amy Cannon Arakelyan, a USU piano student from 2003 to 2007 who wrote in a Facebook post that she was "sexually harassed" by a faculty member on a "regular basis," and Whitney McPhie Griffith, another former student who said that she was raped by a piano instructor in 2009.

The Deseret News does not typically name alleged victims of sexual harassment and assault, but Griffith and Arakelyan have agreed to be identified.

Griffith publicly shared her story for the first time in a Facebook post on Feb. 13 and said that although she reported her claim to the school's administration, officials did not take her allegation seriously.

It's time for me to share my story about one of the darkest chapters in my life. I've been trying to decide how I'd go...

Posted by Whitney McPhie Griffith on Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Deseret News confirmed the accused was not fired following the alleged incident involving Griffith in 2009, though he is no longer an employee of the university.

On February 16, 2018, university president Cockett announced there would be a thorough investigation. The school hired outside counsel, Alan Sullivan from Snell and Wilmer in Salt Lake City, to conduct an independent review of the allegations.

Whitney McPhie Griffith poses for a photo in her sister's home, where she lives in the guest house, in Los Altos, California, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Whitney McPhie Griffith poses for a photo in her sister's home, where she lives in the guest house, in Los Altos, California, on Wednesday, April 4, 2018.
Cayce Clifford, for the Deseret News

Griffith's Facebook post was met with hundreds of likes, comments and shares. At least 10 other former students also came forward on social media and posted their own experiences with alleged unfair treatment and sexism in USU's piano program.

A woman, who asked not to be identified, told the Deseret News that she was raped by the same man who allegedly raped Griffith in 2009, while she and the man were both music students at USU in 2004.

It wasn't until Griffith and Arakelyan posted on Facebook about their experiences that this woman felt compelled to come forward to investigators.

The #metoo campaign has made me feel hopeful and empowered. Maybe now people in positions of power who abuse, harass,...

Posted by Amy Cannon Arakelyan on Saturday, February 10, 2018

"We've hired an independent investigator to conduct a thorough review of every aspect of the situation," DeRito wrote in an email to the Deseret News. "We don't have all the details about individual cases at this point."

New allegations

A male former music student claimed he was groped by a music professor on an overnight trip in 2006. The professor was supposed to be staying in a separate room, but a video taken by the student shows the professor in the student's room, asleep on a bed, wearing only his underwear. The student said he took the video on his cellphone after the groping incident because he thought no one would believe him.

In a letter to the student following the incident, the professor claimed he did not remember what happened because he had taken Ambien.

The student filed a report to USU's Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Office shortly after the overnight trip. The report also described how the student often felt uncomfortable with the way the professor touched him during private lessons.

Shortly after he filed the report however, the male student said the Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Office employee he spoke to convinced him to withdraw his complaint, saying that if he didn't withdraw it, the police would have to get involved. Three days later, the student withdrew his complaint in a letter dated May 4, 2006.

"I felt pressured," the former student said. "I would never have filed a report just to withdraw it."

The former student also claimed he was sexually harassed by the professor in the years leading up to the alleged groping incident. According to the student, his professor was inappropriately involved in his personal life as the student was beginning to explore his own sexuality as a gay man.

In a letter to the student dated October 13, 2005, the professor wrote, "I have given so much of my own time to help you develop your great talent and have made many sacrifices at my own personal expense. Your continued involvement in this Gay life-style does not represent much appreciation for this, particularly when I have done so much to showcase your talent."

The professor in question denied any claims of inappropriate behavior and is no longer employed at Utah State, but continues to teach private lessons at another university.

The Deseret News also spoke to Cache County Attorney James Swink who said he is working with a woman who claimed she was sexually assaulted more than 20 years ago by a man who was then an employee at USU and is a current USU music department faculty member. A police record dated July 1, 1994, confirmed that a sexual assault was reported but no charges were filed.

The faculty member involved flatly denied the allegations.

Swink said the woman also reported her experience to the university after the alleged assault and felt her case was not adequately addressed by the school or by police. The woman is currently working with the Cache County prosecutor to implement changes in law enforcement and at the university.

"If we go back into the early nineties, we weren't very adept at investigating and prosecuting these types of crimes," Swink said. "Now we are working hard to assure these types of reports are taken seriously and that we're doing a better job with law enforcement.

"The university is very interested in making sure these are managed better than they have been in the past," Swink added.

'Unchecked power'

Thirteen former and current USU students talked to the Deseret News, using words including "sexism," "favoritism," "intimidation," and "a toxic culture" to describe their experiences within the piano program.

Rachel Speedie, a piano student at Utah State from 1999 to 2004, said she was singled out by a professor who she said lectured her inappropriately about how to dress for her role as a teacher in the Youth Conservatory.

Specifically, Speedie said the professor talked about her breasts in a way that made her feel "sick." She said the professor scolded her for having "flashed" "little boys."

"All of his words were spoken behind closed doors, just the two of us. He was yelling, I was crying," she added.

Speedie said she verbally complained to the Affirmative Action Equal Opportunity Office, as well as to the head of the music department.

After she did so, she said she was fired from her job as a piano instructor, banned from using the practice rooms designated for piano majors, for which she had already paid, and given a failing grade for her senior recital. She left the university without completing her degree.

"The men in the department had unchecked power," said Speedie, who was a piano student at the university from 1999 to 2004. "They used this power to discriminate against women — which, in my case, forced me out of the program one course shy of graduation."

Standing strong is not always convenient or popular. I’m going to go ahead and give it a try today. I’ve been asking...

Posted by Rachel Speedie on Saturday, February 17, 2018

When asked to comment on these cases, Vitale told the Deseret News that "those were the details the independent investigator was expected to look into."

"The independent investigator interviewed a number of victims," he added. "We'll have to wait and see the report and recommendations to address safety concerns and any other concerns that arise from the report."

Speedie also said she was on the receiving end of sexist comments by a different professor, including statements like "men are just better at piano, and that's the way it is" and "women give up once they get married and have babies."

Several other students, including Diana Kline, who transfered to USU from Ricks College in 1998, also recalled that same professor saying men could play piano better than women. "I remember him saying that and to me that was really discouraging," Kline told the Deseret News.

"If a girl got married and had a baby, she was not treated as 'acceptable college piano material,' but discarded like a piece of trash," Kline wrote in a Facebook post. "The male students were viewed as golden."

Although Kline originally intended to pursue a four-year degree, she left USU in 2000 with a piano teaching certificate instead, because she wanted to "get out of there as soon as possible."

"I was there for those classes and clearly remember those male/female discussions," said Aaron McClaskey who was a piano student at USU from 1993 to 1994 and from 1996 to 2000. "He stated that male pianists due to a generally larger musculature could 'more easily produce a bigger sound' but the take home point he made is that any person regardless of gender could produce any sound desired through the application of proper technique."

The professor who allegedly made sexist remarks responded with a statement to the Deseret News, which said: "I would never make the ridiculous statement that men play better or are better students than women. I can give you names of women in our program who got married, had babies, and still graduated with great success. Others got married and dropped out to start a family. That was their choice and I applaud their decisions."

Brittany Caudell Farnsworth developed debilitating anxiety and a stomach disorder when she was a piano student at USU from 1998 to 2000, which she said was a result of being publicly humiliated by professors during classes and performances. After taking two years off to heal, she completed her studies at the University of Utah.

I rarely jump on the bandwagon, and I don’t often post personal things on facebook let alone stories of my life that I’d...

Posted by Brittany Caudell Farnsworth on Monday, February 19, 2018

"The difference between the two departments was night and day," Farnsworth said.

In a letter to the editor published by the Deseret News on March 10, 2018, following a February 16, 2018 story detailing Griffith and Arkeleyan's initial allegations, seven current piano students at USU came forward to express their own views about the department. They said that they had seen positive changes and now "feel safe and supported" in the USU piano prog.

"We have witnessed and experienced the toxic culture many have alluded to," the seven students wrote. "Because of our own discussions with the administration, changes involving the music faculty occurred in the fall of 2017, and we feel those eliminated the hostile environment. The Title IX office and the music department took our concerns seriously, and we saw improvement because of it."

"The current department as it stands is incredible," said senior Lexie Hansen, one of the students who wrote the letter to the editor. "(Current faculty) did everything they could to try and make positive changes."

Hansen and one of her classmates, Camille Jensen Weber, both filed Title IX reports in the spring of last year after having negative experiences with one professor. A third student said she filed as a witness to those reports. Weber wrote in her report, that after asking the professor for additional help to prepare for a test, he lost his temper and made personal demeaning insults.

In an interview with the Deseret News, Hansen said her Title IX complaint included claims that the same professor treated her unfairly and publicly humiliated her in class. Hansen was unable to obtain a copy of her complaint from the university Title IX office, but said that after she filed it, the professor she named questioned whether she 'deserved' the scholarship money she had been awarded. After that, Hansen noticed a $1,700 deficit in the money she received. Another professor looked into it and reinstated Hansen's scholarship finding no explanation for why it had been cut, Hansen said.

When asked to respond to allegations made by current students, the professor in question said, "Every one of those statements made against me are false."

University response

Cockett, USU's president, will speak at a press conference on Friday morning, during which she will announce the results of the independent investigation and take questions from the media, said Vitale.

"President Cockett has taken this seriously from the start, and by seriously I mean she has taken it to heart," said Vitale. "She has had the safety and well-being of our students front and center in her mind."

He added that before the report is made public, it will be first delivered directly to the Chair of the Utah State Board of Trustees.

"Sexual violence is a nationwide issue, and it has to be addressed," Vitale said. "On Friday, we will be able to see what the flaws have been in our approach to handling this issue, and we will be able to address those flaws forcefully and proactively."