Retaliation for Standing up to Sexual Assault

Unfortunately, reports or sexual assault on college campuses have become very commonplace recently. One report says that nearly 1 in 5 college freshman is sexually assaulted on campus. Most universities have a counseling center, as part of their student services programs, which is responsible for counseling such students. But what happens when one of the university employees, hired as a therapist, takes action for the benefit of the student, which is considered contrary to the school? Retaliation is often the result.

Legal Issues at the University of Oregon

The story of Jennifer Morlok is being reported by CNN and other media outlets after the school became involved in a sexual assault scandal involving three basketball players. Morlok was a senior staff therapist at the University of Oregon, her alma mater. But, when Morlok stood up for the victimized student, disagreeing with the how the investigation was being run, her job was threatened.

"If you call out your institution, you face retaliation."

According to Caroline Heldman, co-founder of the advocacy group Faculty Against Rape, this is what happens on many college campuses. Colleges, as employers, reportedly resort to threatening free speech and deterring employees from taking actions that may be unbeneficial to the school. This is still a form of retaliation in the employment context, whenever an employee's job is threatened after engaging in protected activity.

The Mandates of Title IX

Title IX is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity. The statute sets forth certain mandates that must be followed by education programs that receive federal funding. If those mandates are not followed, funding can be lost. One of those mandates requires schools to provide an education free of sexual harassment. The problem that Morlok faced was that, as a university employee, she found herself in a situation where her obligations to the students and to the institution were at odds.

University Employees Labeled as Troublemakers

The retaliation against university employees can take many different forms. As the CNN article reports, employees who speak out against their schools have reported being removed from committees, losing classes, having their funding pulled or ultimately losing their jobs. Even tenured faculty, who supposedly have job security and academic freedom, experience retaliation in subtle ways, including being sidelined in their departments and alienated from their colleagues. The problem starts when these employees are labeled by their employers as troublemakers. Indeed, college employees who openly call for accountability on college campuses are portrayed as "agitators," "troublemakers" and "polarizing" figures, much like the civil rights activists who fought for freedom from discrimination.

What is Unlawful Retaliation?

Under the law, retaliation means taking an "adverse employment action" against an employee for "engaging in legally protected activity." What do those terms mean? The law is constantly changing when it comes to determining what actions fit within the court's definitions. However, there are certain understood agreed upon examples.

Recognizing Retaliation in the Workplace

It can be difficult to tell if you are a victim of retaliation. Many employees see subtle changes in a supervisor's demeanor, such as not being as friendly, and feel that is a sign of retaliation. Although it may be a direct result of your protected conduct, it isn't retaliation by itself. Only conduct or changes in conduct that have an adverse effect on your employment are considered retaliatory.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

Categories: Harassment, Sexual Assault
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