'Fractured and ruined': How Fresno State's understaffed Title IX office failed students on Joseph Castro's watch

Fresno City College students Liyah Garcia, right, and Uday Patel were among about 40 people protesting Feb. 5 over California State University’s handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints. Many said Joseph Castro should resign.
Fresno City College students Liyah Garcia, right, and Uday Patel were among about 40 people protesting Feb. 5 over California State University’s handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints. Many said Joseph Castro should resign.

During his seven years as president of California State University’s Fresno campus, Joseph Castro sparked ire among students and staff for failing to heed repeated warnings that the school lacked the resources needed to keep women on campus safe.

Castro left Fresno State in December 2020 to become chancellor of the entire 23-campus CSU. He resigned last month amid mounting pressure after a USA TODAY investigation revealed he mishandled years of sexual harassment complaints against a top administrator as president of Fresno State.

His mishandling of the case against then-vice president of student affairs Frank Lamas was not in isolation. It was part of a broader pattern of neglect toward the school’s responsibilities under Title IX at a time when both the federal government and supporters of the growing Me Too movement demanded more accountability.

Title IX, which turns 50 this year, is the landmark federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education. It requires schools to provide students and employees who report sexual harassment and violence the support and protective measures necessary to safely continue their education or jobs. It requires schools to investigate reports of sexual misconduct and to hold those found responsible to account.

From the start of his presidency in mid-2013 to the time it ended in late 2020, Castro left Fresno State's Title IX office understaffed compared with those at similarly sized campuses and, as a result, unable to effectively respond to students who needed help, USA TODAY found.

For example, Fresno State’s Title IX office had no full-time coordinator until 2018 – four years after the U.S. Department of Education explicitly urged colleges to hire one. Castro instead designated those responsibilities to employees on top of their regular duties.

Fresno State’s Title IX office has never employed more than two staff members at once, while other CSU campuses have enlisted as many as eight to carry out the wide range of duties required under the law. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which has fewer students than Fresno State, the Title IX office has a coordinator, two assistant directors, an analyst and two administrative assistants, according to the school website.

Even after Castro hired a full-time Title IX coordinator, Jamie Pontius-Hogan, in 2018, discipline was rare for student and employees accused of sexual misconduct. During Pontius-Hogan's first three full years on the job, the Title IX office received more than 200 reports of sexual misconduct, gendered violence or stalking, annual reports show. According to the reports, Pontius-Hogan completed investigations into just five.

Students and staff complained repeatedly about the situation.

Fresno State’s then-victim advocate, Lisa Risch, wrote of the Title IX program’s dysfunction in 2016 and 2017, annual reports obtained by USA TODAY show. School officials weren’t following best practices and had failed to implement any “real” prevention efforts across campus, Risch wrote. She called for the school to hire more advocates, “given the size and needs of” the 25,000-student campus.

Student leaders pushed Castro to build a more robust Title IX program. Former student Ashley Juskalian, who served as president of the Women’s Alliance student group, said she met with Castro in late 2017 and urged him to increase Title IX staffing.

When Castro left Fresno State three years later, the school employed one full-time Title IX coordinator, one part-time deputy coordinator and still only one advocate.

Fresno State’s Title IX staff shortage, low number of investigations and rare formal disciplinary actions under Castro’s watch raised red flags among five Title IX experts who reviewed USA TODAY’s findings. Five current and former female students told the news organization the Title IX office either did not respond to their sexual assault reports or took no meaningful action to protect them from the men who violated them.

“We are in a historical moment where it’s really, really critical for the top leadership of our universities to take this issue very, very seriously," said Elizabeth Armstrong, a University of Michigan professor who studies Title IX and universities’ responses to sexual assault. “There is evidence that this school, even in 2021, was completely incapable of handling the victim side of this issue.”

Castro declined to comment for this story and did not respond to written questions.

Four days before this story published, Fresno State President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, who succeeded Castro, announced in a video message to campus that the school will take measures to improve its response to complaints of sexual misconduct and discrimination.

The school will hire a second victim advocate, a deputy Title IX coordinator in charge of investigations and a deputy coordinator focused specifically on harassment, retaliation and nonsexual discrimination, Jiménez-Sandoval said. It will engage in “a series of efforts” to understand and improve the campus climate, including measuring the prevalence of sexual violence, discrimination and bias. It will launch a task force to streamline Title IX processes and improve prevention education.

“My administration is actively working to restore trust and establish more equitable practices,” Jiménez-Sandoval said in the video message. “I believe that acknowledging that there are issues to resolve is the first step toward finding equitable solutions.

“These three key positions are just the beginning of the important work we must do to address certain root problems.”

Title IX is a focus of California lawmakers, students, faculty and staff who criticized Castro’s handling of the multiple sexual harassment, bullying and retaliation allegations against Lamas, as revealed in a USA TODAY investigation published in February.

Even after an outside law firm found Lamas responsible for sexually harassing a subordinate and engaging in “abusive workplace behavior,” Castro quietly authorized a settlement agreement that gave Lamas a clean record and $260,000 in exchange for his retirement. The deal, signed in August 2020, banned Lamas from working at the CSU again but gave him a letter of recommendation from Castro to help him find work elsewhere.

Three weeks after the settlement, Castro was named chancellor of the CSU – the nation’s largest university system with nearly a half-million students and more than 50,000 employees. He officially started in that position in January 2021 and served until his resignation last month.

After USA TODAY’s investigation, California State Assembly member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, and CSU faculty and employee unions called for a state audit of Title IX and human resources practices across the CSU system. Assembly member Jose Medina, D-Riverside, said he will introduce legislation that would require the evaluation of “previous responses and handlings of Title IX” when selecting university leaders.

The CSU Board of Trustees announced it will hire an outside law firm to conduct a  “comprehensive system-wide assessment to provide insights, recommendations and resources to help advance CSU’s Title IX and civil rights training, awareness, prevention, intervention, compliance, accountability, and support systems” as part of an initiative to bring the CSU “to the forefront of Title IX innovation.”

The assessment, the board said, will begin at Fresno State. But the problems at the campus have long been in plain view.

Fresno State student Stephanie Ocampo  reported to campus police and the Title IX office that she was groped by a male student while walking down a hallway in a campus building. She says the school did little to keep her safe.
Fresno State student Stephanie Ocampo reported to campus police and the Title IX office that she was groped by a male student while walking down a hallway in a campus building. She says the school did little to keep her safe.

“I have been dealing with Title IX for over two years now, and at this point, I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing,” said Stephanie Ocampo, a journalism student who reported being groped and assaulted by a male classmate in a school hallway in February 2020. “It has been so dreadful, and it feels like the system is just protecting itself. It’s backwards.

“Nothing has been done, and I’m just completely devastated and hurt.”

New mandate, 'major challenges'

Castro began his Fresno State presidency in 2013 as the federal government was cracking down on campus sexual assault.

Two years earlier, the U.S. Department of Education reaffirmed schools’ obligation to address sexual violence under Title IX. Within months of Castro’s arrival, the feds doubled down on that stance and urged the creation of on-campus Title IX offices with full-time coordinators to oversee them.

Among the roles of a Title IX coordinator are investigating sexual misconduct complaints, developing prevention training, meeting with victims, monitoring academic, athletic and extracurricular programs to ensure equitable treatment for men and women, and identifying patterns of incidents and systemic problems.

When Castro came to Fresno State, the Title IX office was housed under the HR department. HR director Jan Parten served as Title IX coordinator on top of her existing duties. An HR manager, Brittany Grice, served as her deputy, conducting investigations and training.

Castro did not assign a deputy coordinator to replace Grice when she left in February 2015, records show. When Parten retired in December 2015, Castro took two years to hire a permanent replacement.

In the meantime, he appointed the school’s longtime student housing director, Erin Boele, to fill the role on an overtime basis. She did so on top of running the campus dormitories full-time, drawing a $900-a-month stipend to supplement her housing director salary.

The only other person dedicated full-time to Title IX issues at the campus of 25,000 students was Risch, the victim advocate – a position the CSU mandated for all campuses after the federal guidance. The role entails providing direct support to students and employees who experience sexual assault or harassment and connecting them with resources.

During her first full year, Risch assisted at least 72 victims of sexual or gendered violence or harassment, annual reports obtained by USA TODAY show. She complained of “challenges related to budget status” and a “lack of clarity” between the Title IX coordinator’s role and hers, a 2015-16 student affairs annual report shows.

Lisa Risch, Fresno State's victim advocate, called for increased staffing and criticized the school's lack of "real" prevention efforts in this 2016-17 student affairs annual report obtained by USA TODAY through a public records request.
Lisa Risch, Fresno State's victim advocate, called for increased staffing and criticized the school's lack of "real" prevention efforts in this 2016-17 student affairs annual report obtained by USA TODAY through a public records request.

Risch’s second-year assessment was particularly critical. She listed seven “major challenges” in the 2016-17 annual report, including the school’s “reliance on a single person, given the size and needs of this University” and its “lack of reliance on best practices.” Departments involved in victims services were siloed, she wrote, and her position “continues to be isolated,” which “accelerates burnout.” There were “currently no real prevention or programming efforts underway across the University.”

Risch called for “back up personnel,” the report shows, including “co-advocates.” Castro never hired any.

Risch, who did not respond to phone calls, voicemails and a text message from USA TODAY, left Fresno State the following year.

'An insult to our humanity'

With little experience and no additional Title IX staff, Boele was left on her own to respond to a barrage of complaints.

She received 78 reports of sexual assault and misconduct, dating and domestic violence and stalking in 2016-17, according to case data analyzed by USA TODAY and confirmed by school officials. She completed investigations into four.

In one of the first cases that came across her desk, Boele found a male freshman responsible for sexually assaulting two female students. The school expelled him, but Boele accidentally didn’t send him the letter notifying him of her findings.

Boele blamed the case management software the school purchased, she told USA TODAY. She believes she sent the letter, she said, but the system had no record of it.

Fresno State acknowledged the mistake after the student sued the university in January 2017, alleging violations of his due process rights, court records show. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge ultimately sided with the student and vacated his expulsion.

That summer, Boele investigated allegations that Lamas made sexist comments to and about women in the office, school officials confirmed. When Lamas found out, he threatened to have her removed from her committee assignments, and Boele dropped her investigation, as USA TODAY reported.

Frank Lamas speaks to employees and staff during a homecoming event on the lower level of California State University, Fresno's student union on Oct. 25, 2019.
Frank Lamas speaks to employees and staff during a homecoming event on the lower level of California State University, Fresno's student union on Oct. 25, 2019.

Amid all of it, Castro tasked Boele with leading the hiring committee for a permanent Title IX coordinator. Over two years, the committee launched three searches, all of which “failed,” Boele said. According to Boele, none of the applicants was a strong fit.

Students criticized Castro for leaving the Title IX office understaffed and survivors vulnerable. Juskalian, the student who served as Women’s Alliance president, called for more staffing at Take Back the Night rallies she helped organize in 2016 and 2017, according to The Fresno State Collegian’s coverage of the events.

At the rallies, Juskalian urged attendees to voice their concerns directly to Castro and called the issue “an insult to our humanity.”

Juskalian met with Castro and other administrators in his office around the end of 2017 to discuss her concerns, she told USA TODAY. According to Juskalian, the administrators explained the search committee had high standards for the Title IX coordinator position and was unwilling to settle for less than a top talent.

“I certainly did not sense a lack of care or concern for the issue, but I can’t say we really saw any deliverable results,” Juskalian told USA TODAY. “I understand a Title IX coordinator is difficult to come by and it’s an in-demand position. Where my frustration lied was: I just don’t think they made a good temporary solution, hiring an already very busy employee to do it.”

Before Risch left in 2018, she went on maternity leave. Her absence in fall 2017 left Boele as the school’s only Title IX official on duty.

That October, a freshman woman contacted the health center in crisis, she told USA TODAY. She said she had been sexually assaulted by a close family member who was not a student and needed to talk to someone. It is USA TODAY’s policy not to publish the names of people who allege sexual assault or harassment without their permission.

“I was really struggling,” the woman said. “I didn’t have anybody to go to. I didn’t even know what I needed. I just knew I needed someone.”

The health center referred her to a counselor from a rape crisis center who was on campus as Risch’s substitute. The counselor helped, the woman said, but left campus a week or two later and transferred the woman’s case to Boele.

Boele arranged a meeting at 7 a.m. with the woman, she said, but the woman slept through her alarm. She said she emailed Boele, apologizing and asking to reschedule, but Boele didn’t respond. She emailed Boele a few more times over the next few weeks, she said.

“I just never got anything back,” the woman told USA TODAY. “And then I just gave up.”

Fresno State officials declined to comment on the woman’s case or her emails to Boele, citing privacy laws.

Investigations ground to a halt

In January 2018, Castro appointed Fresno State’s first full-time Title IX coordinator.

Pontius-Hogan, who had spent the previous two years as the school’s director of student conduct, took over for Boele on an interim basis. The search committee Boele led chose her for the permanent role a few months later.

Despite the staffing boost, sexual violence investigations under Pontius-Hogan ground to a halt.

Former Fresno State student Xitllali Loya-Alcocer, left, organized a protest Feb. 5 of about 40 decrying the university's handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.
Former Fresno State student Xitllali Loya-Alcocer, left, organized a protest Feb. 5 of about 40 decrying the university's handling of sexual assault and harassment complaints.

In her first full year, she received 79 reports of sexual assault and misconduct, dating and domestic violence and stalking, according to the school’s 2018-19 annual Title IX report. She completed investigations into none of them.

Reports continued pouring in steadily during Pontius-Hogan’s second year, the 2019-20 annual report shows. Of 75 reports received, she started investigations into five but didn’t finish them until the next year, annual reports show.

Investigations were more common in years prior, when Parten and Boele led the Title IX office, data shows – even as the number of reports stayed the same. In 2015-16, they completed seven investigations. In 2016-17, Boele by herself completed four.

Such a drop-off should raise concerns for university leadership, said Brett Sokolow, president of the national professional organization Association of Title IX Administrators.

It is possible new Title IX regulations issued under the Trump administration caused Fresno State to experience a reduction, Sokolow said. Any Title IX office showing such a decline should conduct surveys or focus groups, he said, and implement programming and training to correct any problems that might drive students and employees away from the formal investigation process.

“This kind of shift is something that a cabinet and/or board of trustees should be informed of,” Sokolow told USA TODAY. “Any school experiencing a drop like this would want to assess whether the grapevine or media sources have carried stories that, truthfully or falsely, might contribute to a loss of confidence widely held by the student body.

“The point is to notice the drop-off and study it, to understand whether the cause might be internal or external and to determine if something can be done to address it.”

USA TODAY filed a public records request with Fresno State seeking records of surveys, assessments or focus groups administered since 2014 regarding the campus climate around sexual assault or misconduct and reporting it to school officials or the Title IX office. Fresno State provided 2016 and 2019 surveys that asked students if they had experienced "sexual harassment" and reported it to "a campus authority." The surveys did not ask about reasons for reporting or not reporting, nor did they specifically mention sexual assault, gendered violence, Title IX or the formal investigation process.

Pontius-Hogan told USA TODAY she did not know the reason for the drop but her approach to handling complaints is the same as her predecessors’. Most reports, she said, do not lead to formal investigations, either because the complainant did not wish to participate in one, the accused person was unknown or unaffiliated with the school, or the information was otherwise insufficient to move forward.

Some complaints she started investigating were withdrawn, she said. Others ended in informal or early resolutions, in which both parties agree to a set of conditions in lieu of a formal investigation or before one is completed.

Of the 202 sexual misconduct and violence reports the Title IX office received over the past three years, Pontius-Hogan resolved 22 through early or informal resolutions, annual reports show. The 2018-19 annual report details the outcomes of seven of the resolutions – three stalking cases, two sexual assaults, one dating violence and one other sexual misconduct case. The agreed-upon sanctions range from no-contact and “stay away” orders to probation, educational training and 12 hours of counseling.

Ocampo, the journalism student who reported being assaulted by a classmate in February 2020, signed one such resolution days after the incident.

She told USA TODAY she is still paying the price for it.

Fresno State 'failed to protect my education'

According to Ocampo, Pontius-Hogan recommended she sign a resolution on the premise it was the best way to keep her safe from the student she said groped her in broad daylight.

“My education has been completely fractured and ruined,” said Ocampo, a single mother double-majoring in journalism and political science. “And that student is walking around campus like nothing happened.”

The incident Ocampo said derailed her college experience happened while she was walking down a hallway in the journalism school. According to Ocampo and a campus police report she filed, a male student she knew from class ran up to from behind and grabbed her, pulling her body against his. He placed her into a chokehold with one arm, she said, and used his other arm to grope her breasts.

“My education has been completely fractured and ruined,” Fresno State student Stephanie Ocampo says.
“My education has been completely fractured and ruined,” Fresno State student Stephanie Ocampo says.

She tried to pull away, she said, but his grip around her neck was so tight it left a bruise. Ocampo had no idea what was happening, she said, and felt he was going to kill her. The entire time, she said, he was laughing.

Ocampo reported it the next day to campus police. An officer interviewed the male student two weeks later and asked him if he remembered "hugging" Ocampo in the hallway, a police report shows. He denied touching her. The officer did not arrest him, writing, "In my mind this case is not criminal in nature."

Ocampo reported the incident to the Title IX office. Instead of removing the male student from the class he and Ocampo shared, Pontius-Hogan removed Ocampo. There was no option to take it virtually at the time. Ocampo remained enrolled in the class, she said, and had to visit her professor after hours to catch up on material she’d missed. The male student continued attending classes in person, she said.

According to Ocampo, Pontius-Hogan urged her to sign a resolution agreement that would provide a “roadmap” to her safety. The agreement, a copy of which she shared with USA TODAY, forbade Ocampo and the male student from contacting each other. It directed Ocampo to use only the north entrance to one campus building and him to use a different entrance. Both students agreed to the terms, and Pontius-Hogan closed the case March 4, 2020, a letter she sent Ocampo shows.

Ocampo did not know the school could have conducted a noncriminal investigation that could have ended in the male student’s suspension or expulsion from campus, she told USA TODAY. She had little understanding of her Title IX rights, she said, and Pontius-Hogan advertised the resolution as the best available option under her circumstances.

The pandemic hit a week after the agreement was finalized. All classes went remote, which meant Ocampo didn’t have to see the male student for a year.

When in-person classes returned in fall 2021, a professor informed Ocampo that the male student planned to enroll in the same broadcast journalism course sequence she needed to take to graduate that spring.

Ocampo told USA TODAY she sought help from Pontius-Hogan, who told her the male student could not be moved out of the class without a responsibility finding from a formal Title IX investigation. That was the first Ocampo had heard of a Title IX investigation, she said. Pontius-Hogan seemed to discourage it, Ocampo said, stressing how difficult it would be for her to endure.

At Ocampo’s request, Pontius-Hogan launched a formal investigation that August of her allegation from a year-and-a-half earlier. Ocampo provided a photo of the bruise on her neck and a list of witnesses who she said could speak to her condition before and after the incident. Pontius-Hogan initially was optimistic she could complete the investigation by January, Ocampo said. But Ocampo became demoralized in December, she said, when she learned Pontius-Hogan had yet to contact all her witnesses.

Pontius-Hogan’s investigation is ongoing – more than six months after it began. Ocampo was unable to enroll in the broadcast course this semester, she said, because the male student is taking it.

Fresno State declined to comment on Ocampo’s case, citing privacy concerns and the fact the case is ongoing. Debbie Adishian-Astone, the school’s vice president of administration who oversees the Title IX office, said complainants are informed of their Title IX rights in writing and during intake meetings and that students can raise concerns or questions at any time during the process. Federal regulations, she said, “do not allow us to force a respondent out of a class without due process.”

Ocampo enrolled in a print journalism class to be able to graduate this semester. Because she missed the broadcast course, she also missed the opportunity to get on-camera experience and develop a reel, she said, which she worries could affect her job prospects.

“The system failed to protect my education, and that should have been their main priority,” Ocampo said. “I shouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of this, because I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Kenny Jacoby is a reporter for USA TODAY's investigations team who covers universities, sports, policing and sexual violence. Email him at kjacoby@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @kennyjacoby.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fresno State's Title IX office understaffed, ineffective under Castro