When University of Oregon senior Laura Hanson was sexually assaulted by a fellow student a couple of days after New Year’s 2013, she said she felt violated and later shunned by her friends and sorority sisters.
The university’s drawn-out investigation of the incident–which substantiated her allegation–only added to her trauma.
Hanson’s ordeal wasn’t over. Last year, as she pressed forward with a claim against the university, Hanson learned that the school’s attorneys had obtained her confidential counseling records – her most intimate thoughts about what happened – without her permission.
“They were faster to mount their opposition to me than they were to support me,” she said in an interview. “That’s the part that I still can’t grasp.”
Hanson said she was nearing graduation from the Honors College of the University of Oregon when she was raped on the night of Jan. 3, 2013. At first, she said, she didn’t know what to do and didn’t report what happened. Within two weeks, she went to the University Health Center, where she was tested for sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, and a nurse discussed counseling with her.
Over the next four months, she told others, including professors and sorority sisters, about what happened. She officially reported the assault to the Office of the Dean of Students in May 2013, prompting the university to begin contacting other students to ask about the matter.
Months passed with no outcome – until the university informed her in January 2014 that it had concluded that the student who she accused of the assault was responsible for sexual misconduct. It placed him on probation, instructed him to have no contact with her, and required him to complete a “Sexual Misconduct Journal,” a five-part process that “encourages education and reflection.”
Hanson’s lawyer, Jennifer Middleton, requested her medical records in March 2014 and received what “we thought was everything.”
“Then we were talking more to the university lawyers and they said, ‘We have some information that you don’t have,’” she said, alluding to the counseling records.
The university settled Hanson’s claim for $30,000.
Doug Park, the university’s deputy general counsel, said that he could not discuss Hanson’s case. He said the university may review a student’s counseling records to defend itself against an allegation of wrongdoing or if a student alleges a violation of Title IX, the federal regulation that outlines how universities should respond to accusations of sexual assault.
“I am unaware of any records that were ever reviewed by any lawyer [for the University] prior to that record being sent to an outside lawyer,” Park said in an interview. “I’m unaware of that ever happening, not just in this case but in any case.”
The University of Oregon has since issued a new, interim policy that restricts its lawyers’ ability to review students’ counseling records. Specifically, the university said it will use a subpoena “whenever possible” to access records in the event of a legal action against it. Otherwise, the university said it will notify students of its intent to review the records and give them an opportunity to object.
Hanson said the experience left her feeling that “nothing I do is private anymore.”
“I don’t blame the University of Oregon for a rape,” she said. “It’s not their fault. I blame them for how they responded to it. I found out months later that every single meeting I had with a therapist, she took detailed notes on, and the University of Oregon had read these notes before I had even seen them.”
By Charles Ornstein, originally published on ProPublica