Courtesy of Whitney McPhie Griffith
Whitney McPhie Griffith

LOGAN — A 29-year-old woman has come forward saying that her piano instructor raped her while she was a student at Utah State University, and that she was not taken seriously when she reported the incident to school authorities.

Whitney McPhie Griffith told the Deseret News she was 21 years old and in her first semester at the university when the alleged incident occurred in 2009.

The Deseret News does not typically name alleged victims of sexual assault, but Griffith has agreed to the use of her name.

In a Facebook post on Feb. 13, Griffith shared her story publicly.

“It’s time for me to share my story about one of the darkest chapters in my life,” she wrote. “I’ve been trying to decide how I’d go about this … knowing I’d never feel like I’d be able to write it 'perfectly' or feel ready to put myself out there. But the time is now.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the university first responded publicly with a statement on the USU Piano Program Facebook page: “We want to make sure you know that USU takes the concerns raised by our former students very seriously and that the instructor referred to in the student’s post is not employed at USU.”

Courtesy of Whitney McPhie Griffith
Whitney McPhie Griffith

USU said it could not elaborate further on the instructor's employment history at the university. No criminal charges have been filed in relation to the case.

“The instructor is not employed currently and was not employed by Utah State University when this post was made, and we won’t be hiring that person back,” said Amanda DeRito, sexual misconduct information coordinator for the university.

“I am deeply concerned about the serious issues former students have raised about the music department,” USU president Noelle Cockett said in a statement to the Deseret News. “The university is taking immediate action and reaching out to those who might have been involved.”

She added that the university has hired an outside attorney, Alan Sullivan of the Salt Lake City law firm Snell & Wilmer, to conduct an independent review of the allegations “so we can take whatever action necessary to support and protect our students.”

Griffith's allegations come at a time when USU has already come under fire for its handling of Title IX complaints. Title IX is a federal law that charges universities with ensuring students receive education without sex-based discrimination.

Last January, the Department of Justice began investigating how the university responds to reports of sexual assault.

Three USU students were charged or convicted in high-profile sexual assaults alleged to have occurred between 2013 and 2015.

Among them is former football player Torrey Green. In 2015, four women told Logan police that Green assaulted them, but no charges were filed and Green was not questioned about two of the four claims. It was only after additional women accused Green that he was charged with seven assaults.

Green has denied the allegations. He has been ordered to stand trial in seven separate cases. On Tuesday, Green's attorney filed a motion in First District Court to consolidate six of the seven cases filed against Green, prompting the judge to strike trial dates scheduled in the first case he faced. He is next due in court March 29.

The university acknowledged that it “fell short” in handling reports related to him.

In May, former Utah State student and fraternity member Jason Relopez was sentenced to 12 months in jail and ordered to complete sex offender treatment after he admitted to raping two women.

The Department of Justice inquiry at Utah State is just one of the hundreds of reviews federal officials are conducting across the country.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, there are currently 337 open Title IX investigations underway at colleges and universities in the United States.

‘My life fell apart’

Griffith told the Deseret News she enrolled in the piano program at Utah State because “I was more passionate about classical piano than anything else in the world.”

During her first semester, she lived in a complex of studio apartments where many other piano majors lived as well. She says they were all close friends, and the complex felt safe — so she rarely kept her door locked.

One night right after the semester had ended, she had just barely drifted off to sleep when she said she woke up to find her piano instructor in her bed with her.

“I woke up and he was in my bed, and I kept trying to push him off of me but I couldn’t move him enough to throw him off,” she recalls. Then she says he raped her.

“I didn’t tell anyone for a while,” she says. “After it happened my life fell apart, and I sunk into a deep depression."

But after discussing the issue with her father and the Sexual Assault and Anti-Violence Information office on campus, she decided to report the incident to the USU Title IX office.

“It was one of the scariest things I’d ever done,” she said. “It took all the courage I had to read my statement and share the details of the events.”

But Griffith felt the response of the Title IX office was inadequate, and that the Title IX officers did not take her report seriously. She said after she read her statement, Title IX officers told her the incident sounded "mostly consensual," and discouraged her from reporting the incident to the police.

“Their solution was to talk with this individual,” Griffith said in her Facebook post. “They set up a meeting with him and the head of the department and he was told to knock it off — essentially given a slap on the wrist. He said that he was sorry and that he was now ‘on the straight and narrow’ and was turning things around. And that was the end of that.”

She takes issue with the "Interview Sheet," a document containing notes taken by the Title IX office during an interview with Griffith, obtained by the Deseret News.

The document describes a friendship and sexual relationship that developed between Griffith and the instructor toward the end of the semester, leading up to the incident. The document also states that Griffith stated that she did not want to file a formal complaint.

"He made sexual advances that I was not comfortable with," said Griffith, but she disputes the overall characterization in the "Interview Sheet" of a consensual relationship.

"I felt pressured and uncomfortable from the beginning because of his position of power over me," she said.

Still reeling from the trauma, and frustrated by the university’s response, Griffith took a year away from the program.

But when she returned, she says she felt that she was being punished by the program for having spoken out about what happened to her.

“I returned only to find that one of the required courses for piano performance majors was dropped from my schedule after the semester had begun, because the head of the department ‘didn’t want there to be any drama’ between me and the instructor/rapist,” she wrote in her Facebook post.

Anxiety and emotional distress as a result of the incident and the university’s handling of her case led to her to withdraw from the university, she said.

“I’d tried to push through and get what I’d gone to USU for in the first place: an education, exceptional music and piano instruction, and a piano and performance pedagogy degree,” she said. “But I couldn’t do it … I felt too alone and weak to continue on.”

Griffith said she was inspired to go public with her story after another woman, Amy Cannon Arakelyan, shared details of her own experiences in the piano department at Utah State in a Facebook post on Saturday.

Arakelyan described the department as “a toxic environment characterized by thinly veiled misogyny and emotional manipulation.”

University response

Tim Vitale, spokesperson for USU, says because of privacy laws, the university cannot share details about the reporting and handling of specific Title IX cases.

“We really appreciate the former students who brought these concerns to our attention,” said Vitale. “We are taking all of the allegations very seriously.”

Vitale says these allegations are concerning, especially in light of recent efforts that USU has made to address issues of sexual violence and assault.

He cites examples such as a revision to the campus sexual harassment policy in 2016 and a three-pronged prevention approach launched in the fall of 2017, which includes a mandatory sexual misconduct awareness online course for new students, a campus-wide bystander intervention training, and ongoing education about consent for sexual activity.

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On Friday morning, Cockett held a meeting in Huntsman Hall to address concerns from the campus community.

Craig Jessop, professor of music and the founding dean for the Caine College of the Arts at Utah State University spoke to Deseret News on Thursday afternoon. According to the "Interview Sheet," in 2009 he was head of the music department.

“These allegations are very troubling,” said Jessop. “But I have such faith in the vast majority of our people, I have faith in the system and that we are doing everything we can to take care of and protect our students.”