In spring 2016, it seemed publicly as though Baylor officials were responding to one sexual assault incident after another. Behind the scenes, attorneys from the Philadelphia law firm Pepper Hamilton, which had been hired by Baylor to investigate the university's response to allegations of sexual assault by students, were sharing details of their investigation with the regents' three-member special committee overseeing the investigation-and it wasn't looking good.
Over the previous several months, regents had been shocked by allegations of gang rapes and the sheer number of incidents. Woman after woman said she'd told someone but nothing happened. One of the most worrisome issues-the one that led the regents to hire Pepper Hamilton-was whether anyone at Baylor knew about former Bears football player Sam Ukwuachu abusing his girlfriend at Boise State before he came to Waco, Texas. Ironically, that was decided in Baylor's favor and presented at the board's regular meeting in February 2016. School attorneys determined that no one at Baylor knew about the abuse until the woman testified at his trial in August 2015. That news, however, would end up being a tiny silver lining on a big cloud.
On Sunday, May 1, 2016, board chairman Richard Willis and regents Ron Murff, Christopher Howard, Jerry Clements, Dan Hord, Ken Carlile, Jeff Reeter and David Harper, along with Baylor attorney Chris Holmes, flew to Philadelphia, where they met up with J. Cary Gray, another regent. The group was about a quarter of the full board. The next day, they met at Pepper Hamilton's downtown headquarters.
They gathered in a large, stark conference room around a table on which attorneys Leslie Gomez and Gina Maisto Smith placed a stack of three-ring binders full of printouts of text messages, emails, interviews and other documentation. They started with a prayer. They stayed in that conference room from 8 a.m. well into the evening, listening to what the attorneys found. The attorneys reviewed about six cases, all involving football players.
The regents were informed of an interview one regent said came "straight out of a script of victim blaming," between the former Baylor police chief Jim Doak and a woman reporting an assault. According to the regents, the investigation revealed statements like, "Honey, don't you know that if you wouldn't have been out drinking, this wouldn't have happened to you? What are your parents going to say?" (Doak did not reply to multiple requests for an interview.) The regents heard about a woman who showed the attorneys a list of the 27 people she had to recount her assault to in order to switch majors to the business school so as to avoid encountering her alleged perpetrator. They heard about the alleged gang rapes. Every story left them shaking.
"The briefing was when I learned the full depth of the information and my reaction was one of profound shock and sadness," Murff said. "I was sad for the victims, first of all. It was horrific to hear of how some of these women were treated along the way, from the initial acts of violation and then when they tried to get help. We didn't help them the way we should have. It was very disturbing."
During the meeting, one of the regents started crying and pounded the table, saying, "Not my Baylor," and "Why do we have to listen to any more of this? Don't we know what we have to do?"
Every one of the nine regents ended the meeting completely emotionally drained. Some were in shock. Some would cry the next day. "For me, it felt like I'd been run over by a truck," Gray said.
They learned from the attorneys how difficult it had been for some of the women who participated in the interviews, with one woman in particular only able to talk to them if she was curled up in a fetal position on the floor. At that point, none of the women who talked to Gomez and Smith had asked for anything. "They all talked to [the investigators] on the basis of they wanted Baylor to be a better place and that was always impactful to me," Gray said.
Most of the regents traveled back to Texas, debating how best to inform the rest of the board on what they had heard. They discussed a written report, which they were told might take months for Gomez and Smith to prepare. Then there was the concern about putting that much private information into a written report, and what risk releasing such a report would pose to the university's liability insurance coverage. Jasmin Hernandez, one of former football player Tevin Elliott's victims, who did not speak with Pepper Hamilton, had already filed her lawsuit and others were likely coming.
As one regent put it, if releasing too much detail in a report is determined to have compromised the university's defense, an insurance company could refuse to pay out for any legal fees, settlements or judgments. They said they believed it was their fiduciary duty to Baylor to take that into account, despite what they knew would be a likely demand for information.
Over 10 hours on May 11 and May 12, Gomez and Smith gave their presentation to the full board in Waco. Baylor president Kenneth Starr was present for all of it but the discussions the board had about him. We were told that in the interest of time-and possible liability-the Pepper Hamilton attorneys were instructed not to put together a comprehensive written report. Instead, they had a lengthy Microsoft PowerPoint presentation that included their observations, excerpts of emails, and text messages and other documents, as well as highlights of interviews with more than 65 people. This is when the full board heard of the many troubling findings coming from the football program.
During those meetings, it was made clear there were problems at the highest level of the administration-poor communication and coordination and, a word Pepper Hamilton attorneys used, "dysfunctionality."
From "Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University Amid College Football's Sexual Assault Crisis," by Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach. Copyright © 2017 by Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach. Used by permission of Center Street, a division of the Hachette Book Group USA Inc. All rights reserved.