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Therapist Quits University Of Oregon, Claims School Punished Her For Whistleblowing

She says she was "sidelined" after protesting university lawyers accessing a rape victim's records.

A University of Oregon staff member resigned on Sunday, claiming the school retaliated against her for complaining that university lawyers inappropriately accessed a rape victim's medical records.

Jennifer Morlok, who was a senior staff therapist at UO's counseling center, sent a letter announcing her immediate resignation to the university's president, Michael Schill, and Counseling and Testing Center staff. Morlok alleges she had job responsibilities removed and was "sidelined" after reporting that the counseling center's director unethically transferred a female student's therapy records to the university's lawyer's office.

The female student was only identified as Jane Doe and reported that three Oregon basketball players gang-raped her at a party last March. 

"I am sad to leave but I hope that those who come after me will take a stand for better treatment of whistleblowers at the University of Oregon and campuses nationwide as well as for students who are seeking clinical treatment services during very vulnerable times in their lives," Morlok states in her letter, according to a copy obtained by The Huffington Post. "They -- not us -- are our priority."

Robin Holmes, UO's vice president for student life, said the university disagreed with "various assertions" in Morlok's letter, but did not elaborate.

"The university was committed to providing Ms. Morlok with a supportive work environment and was prepared to offer her several alternative workplace scenario," Holmes said in a statement. "We regret that she chose not to pursue any of these options and would welcome her reconsideration. The university remains dedicated to eliminating sexual misconduct on campus and ensuring that survivors receive the confidential support and counseling they need."

Morlok was not available for further comment on Monday afternoon. 

Morlok previously sent letters to university administrators and a Department of Justice attorney raising concerns about how the school handled Doe's medical records. Her colleague Karen Stokes claimed her position at the UO counseling center was terminated in March, after she spoke out about the school's treatment of the records. 

Morlok and Stokes filed a complaint in January with the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners. The board investigated their claims and in September recommended a $5,000 fine and ethics classes for Shelly Kerr, the director of the UO Counseling and Testing Center, for not protecting a student's confidential records.  However, an Oregon State Bar investigation found no wrongdoing from the university's lawyers.

The fact that the university transferred Doe's medical records to their lawyer's office was included in the student's lawsuit against the school, which UO settled for $800,000 in August. In a message announcing the settlement, Schill stated, "I do not believe any of our coaches, administrators, or other university personnel acted wrongfully, nor do I believe that any one of them failed to live up to the high moral standards that we value and that they embody in their work every day."

This comment from Schill did not sit well with Morlok, who said the university president never spoke with her about what happened.

"Mr. Schill, your statement claiming no wrong doing without even speaking to the ones who brought the concern up in the first place deflated hope by many that accountability and consequences would come to those who did wrong in leadership positions- causing harm along the way," Morlok wrote in her resignation letter. 

UO has previously said Morlok and Stokes' claims are inaccurate.

None of the men accused of assaulting Doe were charged by local prosecutors, but the school found all of them responsible for sexual misconduct and suspended them for several years. One of the alleged rapists, Brandon Austin, filed a $7.5 million lawsuit last week claiming the university did not give him a fair adjudication, and that he's now less likely to play in the NBA. Austin's lawsuit says the incident was consensual group sex, and that the men all stopped when Doe started crying. 

Austin was also punished for an alleged sexual assault prior to coming to UO, when he was at Providence College. 

 

Read Morlok's entire resignation letter below:

Dear President Schill, UCTC Colleagues and Others Whom This Concerns,

This letter is to inform you that, effective immediately, I resign from the position of Case Manager/Senior Staff Therapist and External Resource Coordinator with the University of Oregon Counseling and Testing Center (UCTC).

After a year of retaliation because I spoke up for a client of mine, with regard to the unethical actions of my superiors, I can no longer manage the emotional strain and professional toll I have paid for speaking the truth. I have had to seek my own therapeutic support along this tough journey, and it is recommended that I take care of my own psychological and physical well-being.

I was hoping change would occur where I would no longer have to endure retaliation. However, even after the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners issued a notice of proposed disciplinary action finding that the Director of the Counseling Center had engaged in unethical behavior with regard to disclosing confidential client files, the University has taken no supportive actions to make sure I am safe and treated with the full professional support I need in order to do my job. The direct lack of concern for my client’s well-being by leadership at both the Counseling Center and elsewhere in the University has been astonishing to say the least.

With all this considered, I am no longer able to continue to pay the price for others’ wrong actions.  I am no longer willing to be treated as though I am an enemy of the very counseling services I enjoyed providing to students- or an enemy of the very University I received my degree from- where I had hoped my two sons would attend. It is wrong to treat employees who share problems with the system as though they are the problem. It takes more loyalty to speak up to the University and one’s superiors about a wrong they may be doing than it does to participate in the wrong behavior that ultimately will hurt the University as a whole. As George Orwell stated, “In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

As a clinician and a member of the Interpersonal Violence Team and the Mandated Risk Assessment Team, I have truly enjoyed the opportunity I have had to assist students in connecting to services and resources in their time of need.  Being able to accomplish this in numbers above the national average has been a fantastic accomplishment and a deep enjoyment for me. 

I am disheartened that, because of the ill treatment I have endured after speaking up regarding confidential records being disclosed unethically by the Director of the UCTC (as evidenced by the September notice by the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners) I am forced to resign.  I am sad to have to leave a job I have otherwise greatly enjoyed, where I was able to support students in their own struggles.  Working with students has been a pleasure and an honor for me.  The positive feedback from students has kept me going through the difficult times and will continue to be an inspiration to me.

I am not able to sit any longer and be the token of other’s revenge. I am disgusted and disappointed that such behavior exists at my beloved alma mater, but in particular at the Counseling Center itself. The Counseling Center is supposed to represent a safe place for students to come and it is supposed to be a place supporting the mental health of the clients coming in for services. It should never be about the loyalty to the “business” of the University, or to commit unethical behavior with supervisors utilizing their positions of power to evade proper accountability and consequences. I am still in shock that a State regulatory board, which fully investigated and found unethical behavior to have happened by leadership at the Counseling Center, is more likely to enact consequences than the very place of higher education where the wrongful behavior occurred.  I was cautiously hopeful when President Schill stated, “I will not tolerate the victimization of any member of our community. Period.” (President Michael Schill 2015)   But then President Schill stated, “I do not believe any of our coaches, administrators, or other University personnel acted wrongfully, nor do I believe that any one of them failed to live up to the high moral standards that we value and that they embody in their work every day.” Mr. Schill did not speak to me or my colleague about our concerns and it appeared that there was no consideration on his part that wrong may have occurred and that ethics may have been violated. I am thankful that the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners looks at all the evidence and does not carry blind loyalty and PR concerns as does a University. Mr. Schill, your statement claiming no wrong doing without even speaking to the ones who brought the concern up in the first place deflated hope by many that accountability and consequences would come to those who did wrong in leadership positions- causing harm along the way. After all, if the President of the University is confident these leaders have done no wrong then why would they be worried about consequences and why should they stop retaliating against myself or my colleague? A system of no accountability is certainly not going to learn from its mistakes and it perpetuates a cycle of the same unethical and problematic leaders repeating harmful history. As Abraham Lincoln stated, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”

I have offered my assistance to help make positive changes on our campus but I have been removed from the ability to do so, having duties taken away from me. I have been “sidelined.” At the very moment that a concerned employee (whistleblower) can help fix the problem the leadership does everything in its power to make sure the whistleblower does not have the chance to be a part of any positive change. Despite this, I continue to believe that speaking up makes change for the better possible. Even while being sidelined, advocating for better policies on confidentiality for our students seems to have had an affect toward better care for students nationwide. It is accurate that the truth will set one free and I choose to stay with the truth. As Malcolm X stated, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.”

I am encouraged that strong policies are being enacted to further protect students’ confidential records by our legislators. This has been the force needed to make sure Universities are honoring the difference of when a student actually becomes a patient/client with rights to appropriate medical treatment following State standards and ethics. It is important for the University and federal government to adopt the strongest confidentiality policies possible so the line between student and patient does not get blurred.  Although I am disappointed in the dishonorable treatment of myself and my colleague who also spoke up, I am encouraged by the greater change that is happening on campuses nationwide from those courageous enough to disclose the problems that are occurring.

I wish the best to the University and its students and to those I leave behind who are trying to stand for moral and ethical leadership. I have been honored to be a part of positive change for our campus and our students.  I am sad to leave but I hope that those who come after me will take a stand for better treatment of whistleblowers at the University of Oregon and campuses nationwide as well as for students who are seeking clinical treatment services during very vulnerable times in their lives. They – not us -- are our priority.  I will continue to stand for, and promote, positive changes on campuses and in our community. I hope you will also.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

With Kindest Regards,

Jennifer Morlok

 

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Tyler Kingkade covers sexual violence and higher education, and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com, or on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

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