On December 16, 2019, USA Today published an investigative report on Texas football star, Tristen Wallace. It was revealed Wallace had been accused of, and found responsible for, two sexual assaults while attending the University of Oregon. He was, subsequently, expelled from the university, transferred to a Texas community college, and then transferred again to Prairie View A&M University. What’s interesting about his transfers is the transcript, while noting his expulsion, failed to mention the reason behind it.
“The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under Secretary Betsy DeVos facilitated a confidential deal between Wallace’s mother and the University of Oregon, in which Oregon agreed to change the athlete’s transcript to remove reference to the sexual assaults. […] But with the federal agency’s help, Loleta Wallace brokered a deal in which Oregon amended her son’s transcript to say simply, ‘Expelled for student conduct,’ records show, a change that would make other schools more likely to recruit him.”
OCR, the federal office that writes and oversees Title IX guidelines, has now been publicly indicted in obscuring the facts concerning a two-time sexual offender in order to ensure his football career prospects would be maintained. Wallace currently attends a university that already has a reputation for failing to protect those who’ve been assaulted.
In 2018, a student “accuse[d] Prairie View A&M of creating a hostile educational environment and violating the federal Title IX law that prohibits gender discrimination in schools and universities.” The lawsuit came after the student, known only as “Mary Doe,” was assaulted by a male athlete. After reporting the assault to the police, she confided in her coach about what happened. According to the lawsuit, two days after the assault, “She and her parents met with the coach, [and] he told them repeatedly he did not know where the male athlete was.” This, ultimately, was not true. The coach did know where the accused was, because he allegedly bought the perpetrator a plane ticket. The accused was later arrested in Florida.
Title IX Under Obama
OCR “Enforces Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance.” This means institutions that receive federal financial assistance must follow the rules established by the OCR and ensure participants in their programs are not subjected to unequal treatment, including sexual harassment or assault.
In 2011, the Obama Administration released new Title IX guidelines, which included, “If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence and address its effects.” OCR also made it clear that “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. [… and that] Sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX.” OCR also made it plain that noncompliant institutions may face proceedings “to withdraw Federal funding by the Department or refer the case to the U.S. Department of Justice for litigation.”
Guidelines surrounding Title IX hearings instructed officers to “Decide cases of sexual harassment not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ but by a ‘preponderance of evidence’ standard — This means hearing officers don’t need to be convinced that an incident occurred, only that it is more likely than not.”
The new rules had supporters and critics. Encouraging institutions to adjudicate cases with preponderance of evidence was considered a lower standard of evidence and a point of contention for many.
Title IX Under Trump
In November of 2018, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released new Title IX rules. In the new regulations, OCR “established a narrower definition of sexual harassment, tightened reporting requirements, relieved colleges of the responsibility to investigate off-campus episodes and outlined steps schools should take to provide support for accusers. They also allow schools the flexibility to choose a higher evidentiary standard, establish an appeals process, and offer the option of cross-examination.”
The new rules were not just a roll back of Obama regulations; they were also crafted to ensure the rights of those accused would no longer be ignored. Former OCR Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach, Candice Jackson told The New York Times:
“Investigative processes have not been ‘fairly balanced between the accusing victim and the accused student,’… and students have been branded rapists ‘when the facts just don’t back that up.” In most investigations, she said, ‘There’s not even an accusation that these accused students overrode the will of a young woman.’”
The difference between these rules are stark and victims, in particular, are already feeling ramifications of the new guidelines. When the OCR became more interested in “hearing both sides” and the “rights of the accused” rather than protecting victims of sexual assault on college campuses, it was only a matter of time before we found out about a situation like that of Wallace.
“I don’t feel safe on campus.”
Many of us at The Lighthouse were concerned about what the new Title IX guidelines would mean for women on college campuses. There wasn’t much faith in what was likely to come out of an administration led by a president whose been accused of sexual assault numerous times. Any university that welcomed Wallace and his sanitized transcript onto their campus would have been able to at least claim ignorance of his past, but Prairie View allowed him to join its football team before the OCR deal was finalized, meaning administrators knew the exact reasons for his expulsion from the University of Oregon. For a campus that already has a bad reputation when it comes to handling sexual assault, their dealings with Wallace make the administration look even worse.
On the condition of anonymity, a student (who I will refer to as they) was willing to share what they know about Wallace and how they feel about it. They shared some information about experiences they had at Prairie View, and we began to wonder more about what these new guidelines would mean for Black women on historically Black college and university campuses.
The young student shared a disturbing story about Prairie View campus culture that included instances of male student athletes getting away with sexual misconduct and information about a known area of the campus where women knew not to go for fear of being sexually harassed or assaulted.
“They didn’t even tell us about what he did in Oregon,” our source said. “It’s like when a child molester moves into the neighborhood [and] they let everyone know there’s a predator in the neighborhood. They didn’t do that with Tristen. [It] was crazy, negligent and irresponsible.”
Athletics is big business for universities. Adding Wallace to the Prairie View A&M Panthers football team is a win for the university, who stands to gain financially, and a win for Wallace as he ensures his NFL dreams are maintained. The burden of this decision will disproportionately rest on the shoulders of female students.
“[Prairie View] is stronger [about] cutting down on drug use than anything else,” the source said. “So if it doesn’t have to do with drugs, then it’s free game. That is what it feels like. I used to walk on campus a lot at night, but I’ve stopped because I realize [sexual assault] can happen to anyone. I don’t feel safe on campus.”
A Story We Tried to Tell
As I continued to reach out to students, faculty, university administrators and those involved with Title IX hearings and investigations, I wanted to know several things: How did faculty interact with and view young Black women on campus? How do stereotypes about Black women manifest in the HBCU environment? And how do those things affect survivors of sexual assault on campus?
Some people were willing to talk to me, but not nearly enough were willing or able to speak to me about the Title IX process on their campus, how they thought the new guidelines would affect their abilities to do their jobs, or how they thought it would affect campus culture. The Title IX coordinator I did set an interview up with quickly began running our initial emails up her chain of command and requested my questions in advanced. I denied the request and she stopped communicating with me. Armed only with my suppositions, our editorial team decided we had no choice but to let the story go. Eleven months later, USA Today published a story about a football player at Prairie View.
The quiet rebranding of Tristen Wallace by the OCR, the University of Oregon and his mother doesn’t come as a surprise. This culture loves to make successes out of men who do their worst to the women around them. People still want to “Step in the Name of Love” and tune into “The Breakfast Club,” even though we know what we know. The latest iteration of Title IX is just another way to ensure abusers can do as they please without facing the inconvenience of consequences. The new guidelines were never meant to protect survivors of sexual assault; they were made to protect the accused. Tristen Wallace is proof that it’s working.