The University of Maryland, Baltimore County allowed a swim coach to sexually assault and discriminate against his student athletes, investigators found. Now, the college has agreed to a series of steps outlined by the Department of Justice to prevent that from happening again. It’s a step in the right direction, experts say, but to bring about true reform, the college culture has to change.

“Until there are real systematic changes in sports where athletes are vulnerable, this is just going to keep happening over and over again,” said Dionne Koller, director of the Center for Sport and the Law at University of Baltimore School of Law.

After a three-year investigation, the DOJ determined UMBC knew about allegations of sexual assault, harassment and discrimination by Chad Cradock, the school’s former head swim coach, and didn’t stop it. Cradock died by suicide in March 2021.

UMBC also did not devote enough resources to comply with Title IX, the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. President Valerie Sheares Ashby was quick to say that she and university leaders take full responsibility.

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The university will pay $4.1 million to victims as part of a settlement agreement with the DOJ, an amount called “outrageously low” by one lawyer.

Under the agreement, the university is required to take an extensive list of actions, including anonymously surveying student athletes at the end of their seasons about the athletic culture; expanding training to improve UMBC’s prevention and response to sex discrimination; creating a behavioral expectations policy for coaching staff; and defining boundaries when it comes to physical contact. UMBC will have to report its progress to the DOJ for five years.

Sheares Ashby said in a collegewide email that those measures will “enhance the strength, accountability, and independence of the university’s Title IX office.” She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Rectifying how athletic departments handle Title IX cases is a nationwide problem, according to Koller. Across the country, she said, athletic departments tend to hold significant power — with some coaches making more than university presidents — and many operate without institutional oversight or supervision from school officials.

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“What we see over and over again across institutions is that because the athletic departments are subject to very little oversight by anybody, [sexual misconduct] reports can never see the light of day,” Koller said.

It would likely require legislation to permanently change sexual abuse reporting and athletic department governance, Koller said.

Legislation can be a good thing but “the devil’s in the detail,” said Jennifer Freyd, founder and president of the Center for Institutional Courage, a nonprofit focused on institutional betrayal research. She noted that some institutions have mandatory reporting rules that would require college employees to report any allegations of sex discrimination. But Freyd fears that could take away a survivor’s autonomy and control, forcing them into an investigation when they think they’re seeking help in confidence.

Some of the changes the DOJ noted could be helpful, said Freyd. However, she’s suspicious of the effectiveness of any Title IX office if the employees are being paid by the university. What’s needed, she said, is an independent office that doesn’t feel any pressure to protect the college’s reputation.

“The incentives of the administrators are often at odds with that’s best for students who are victimized or at risk of being victimized,” she said. “I think what we need for these high stakes situations are some truly independent oversight.”

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One option Freyd suggested is a faculty oversight committee: “They don’t typically have the same pressure on them to cover things up” if they have the job security that comes with tenure, she said.

But what really needs to happen, she said, is changing the culture. And the way to do that is through educating the college community about things like sexual violence, gender discrimination and inequity.

In 2018, two former UMBC students sued the school for mishandling sexual assault complaints — one of whom alleged she was assaulted by three UMBC baseball players who went unpunished.

The public fallout of the lawsuit led to a variety of internal reforms called the Retriever Courage initiative. Under the program, UMBC created an Office of Equity and Civil Rights, introduced an Inclusion Council and added Title IX training requirements for students and staff.

And yet, by November 2020, the DOJ was investigating UMBC for again mishandling Title IX cases.

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What was noteworthy about this week’s settlement agreement, Koller said, was the nod DOJ gave to Sheares Ashby. It stated that she “took significant steps to strengthen its prevention of and response to sex discrimination” since she became UMBC’s president in 2022. She succeeded Freeman Hrabowski, who was UMBC’s president for 20 years.

She created a new role called vice president of institutional equity and civil rights and changed the athletic department’s structure, governance and reporting mechanisms. The athletic director reports directly to her.

Kaylee Reyes, who graduated from UMBC last spring, said she didn’t find it fair that Sheares Ashby took responsibility for the harassment and abuse since it didn’t happen under her watch. It happened while Reyes was there, she said.

“We heard rumblings of it, and there were social media posts that went around,” Reyes, who became a UMBC student in 2019, said. “But nothing that was ever addressed by administration.”

Under the settlement agreement, UMBC has to create a staffing plan. Right now, four positions are listed on the Office of Equity and Civil Rights website, which Title IX falls under: the director, who is also the Title IX coordinator, one case manager and two investigators. The DOJ suggests having deputy Title IX coordinators, prevention and training specialists, and case managers.

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Reyes wondered how long it would take to fill those roles. When she was a student, that office was often too busy to respond in a timely manner.

Reyes, now in law school at George Washington University, said she felt embarrassed by the investigations because she’s spoken so highly of UMBC, where she had an overwhelmingly positive college experience.

She can’t imagine what it’s like for the current students who’ve read the report.

“I just hope that admin does something to support the students now that are probably a little scared or just like a little bit skeptical of where they’re living and who’s having a say in their education,” Reyes said.

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