Title IX probe finds USC Song Girls coach Lori Nelson body shamed, harassed dancers

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The USC Title IX office found “sufficient evidence” longtime Song Girls coach Lori Nelson body shamed, harassed and retaliated against several former spirit squad members from 2016 until her resignation in 2020, creating an environment within the program investigators deemed “hostile and unhealthy.”

In a letter from USC’s Office of Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX dated Wednesday and obtained by The Times, USC vice president and Title IX coordinator Catherine Spear concluded Nelson was responsible for violating university policies regarding harassment and retaliation in her capacity as coach of the Song Girls.

Investigators also explored allegations of discrimination within the program based on race and gender, but found insufficient evidence to support the claims.

Nelson, who spent more than 30 years atop the Song Girls program, will face no consequences for being found in violation of university policies regarding harassment and retaliation. The university, Spear wrote, was “limited in its ability to impose a sanction” against Nelson since the coach resigned from her position in late October, the same day she was notified of the Title IX investigation into her conduct.

Nelson's attorney told The Times Friday the former Song Girls coach plans to appeal the university's findings on claims of harassment and retaliation.

“Ms. Nelson is pleased to have been completely exonerated on all accusations of discrimination based on race, appearance or any other factor,” Ryan Saba, Nelson's attorney, said in a statement. “As for the harassment and retaliation claims, the evidence did not support the conclusion because the complaining parties did not make these allegations against Ms. Nelson until after they were cut from the team by a panel of judges that did not include Ms. Nelson. The overwhelming statements of the audition judges and other witnesses refuted these outlier allegations of wrongdoing.“

USC released a statement Friday highlighting changes it plans to make to the program after completing the investigation, vowing to provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for students.

"Many current and former Song Girls view the program as one of the highlights of their undergraduate experience. Through their participation in the program, Song Girls develop close friendships, translatable skills and a strong sense of belonging. Regrettably, not everyone has experienced the program in the positive way that was intended," read the statement, attributed to USC vice president for student affairs Winston Crisp and Spear.

Adrianna Robakowski and Josie Bullen, two of the five former Song Girls who served as reporting parties in the Title IX investigation, told The Times USC's findings gave them hope for the future of the program.

"I love my university, and it was hard for me to have this negative experience associated with it," Robakowski said. "So I am truly grateful to have had USC listen to us and do the right thing by its students."

Both former Song Girls expressed gratitude because the university took their allegations seriously — and relief that, after more than a year, the investigation largely supported their claims.

"For years, many of the people with a stake in this process have invalidated our experiences, which is how the toxic issues persisted for decades," Bullen said. "Our one and only goal in going to the school and telling our stories was to ensure that no student would experience what we did. The findings of this investigation are providing a huge step forward in accomplishing that."

The Title IX investigation findings were consistent with the culture described by Bullen, Robakowski and 16 other former Song Girls who spoke to The Times this year. Their accounts, dating back as far as 1998, revealed a program that for decades went largely unchecked by USC as Nelson went to great lengths to uphold her own carefully crafted image of what the Song Girls should be.

The former Song Girls described a culture within the team that included Nelson regularly rebuking women publicly for their eating habits, personal appearance and sex lives. Many told The Times they suffered from body image issues as a result. Three former Song Girls said they suffered from eating disorders. One recalled feeling so depressed she considered suicide.

After conducting 44 interviews and reviewing about 800 pages of documentary evidence since August 2020, investigators described a similar environment within the program, concluding that Nelson made “intrusive and harassment statements” about their sexual activity and morals and also “frequently and persistently made unwelcome and offensive communications and engaged in gender-based body-shaming practices.”

Investigators found all five reporting parties, along with five other former Song Girls, provided “consistent and corroborative information” that Nelson criticized team members’ weight and appearance, pressured certain Song Girls to lose weight and encouraged team leaders to engage in similar criticism. Those accounts, Spear wrote, included “specific examples of [Nelson’s] fixation on body size, weight, fitness, and appearance, which had detrimental effects on team members, including eating disorders and body image disorders among some team members.”

That oversight was written directly into the Song Girls contract, several iterations of which were obtained by The Times. The contract stipulated that squad members must stay within five pounds of their audition weight and any changes to their appearance must first be approved by Nelson.

Investigators, however, did not find sufficient evidence that Nelson was directly responsible for the language of the contract, which was amended before this year to remove the weight restriction.

Nelson was previously the subject of a 2016 Title IX investigation at the university, which focused on a single allegation of sexual harassment and retaliation. That investigation found insufficient evidence that Nelson violated university policy, but a USC senior investigator wrote in an outcome letter that she found Nelson’s behavior to be “unprofessional and inappropriate.”

Concerns about her conduct were again shared with USC in February 2020, when three Song Girls met with new athletic director Mike Bohn. It took another six months for USC to initiate a Title IX investigation.

In the meantime, Nelson held auditions last fall. Two returning Song Girls who were cut from the team as a result of those auditions told The Times they felt the decision was retaliation from Nelson for their meeting with Bohn.

Investigators agreed, finding that Nelson submitted poor evaluations for the two women based on “demonstrably false” information. That negative information, the investigation found, was “considered and discussed at length” by judges in their decision to cut the two women.

As a result of the findings, the two women, along with another returning Song Girl who was cut, have been offered opportunities to rejoin the program. Whether they rejoin the team or not, they’ll be provided with the $1,500 stipends awarded to team members.

The Title IX report also states USC will provide education and training to Song Girls, coaches, staff, judges and volunteers on prohibited conduct under the university’s policy on discrimination, harassment and retaliation during the fall semester. USC also plans to implement an anonymous survey by the end of the academic year that will offer current and former Song Girls a chance to provide information about their experiences "to inform potential additional actions with respect to the program to ensure it is an inclusive and welcoming USC student program."

A divide over sentiments about Nelson persists among former Song Girls. In June, a letter signed by 56 former Song Girls expressed that their positive experience under Nelson had been lost in reports about the program.

Faryn Seiden, a Song Girl from 1999 to 2003 who signed that letter, said Friday she felt Nelson had been "mischaracterized" by the findings.

"The Lori I know would never harass or retaliate against anyone," Seiden said.

Some of the former Song Girls at the center of the Title IX investigation, however, felt the result validated their decision to speak with investigators and The Times.

"Thinking back to my year on the team is difficult, but it’s healing to know that the program is moving forward in a positive direction," Bullen said. "I hope that the findings bring healing and peace to all Song Girls who were affected by the issues that we were."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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