Feds help star athlete hide campus rape charges
Tristen Wallace had the qualities every college football team wanted.
Tall and strong with blazing speed, he courted offers to quarterback some of the NCAA’s brand-name programs, from Texas Tech to Ohio State.
University of Oregon won him over, signing him to its 2016 freshman class as a wide receiver. But Wallace never took the field for the Ducks.
Within two weeks of his first fall term at Oregon, two female students separately told campus officials that Wallace raped them. Wallace denies the claims, but the university expelled him — twice. Once for each case of “unwanted penetration,” records show.
Two years later, the 6-foot-3, 220-pound athlete played his first NCAA game at Prairie View A&M, a little-known Division I school near Houston with a football budget less than the salaries of some big-name Division I coaches.
His fall from the upper echelons of college football was as big and fast as him. But he remains in the game. And he’s still a much-discussed draft prospect for the NFL.
That’s because the national organization that regulates college athletes has no penalties for sexual, violent or criminal misconduct. Even when expelled from school for rape, the NCAA allows athletes to transfer elsewhere and keep playing.
An investigation by the USA TODAY Network identified at least 33 current and former athletes since 2014 who transferred to NCAA schools despite being administratively or criminally disciplined for a sexual offense at another college. The actual number is likely far higher, as most universities refuse to release records from disciplinary proceedings, even though federal law allows them to do so.
But Wallace’s case stands out because of the federal government’s role in helping hide the nature of his campus offenses.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) under Secretary Betsy DeVos facilitated a confidential deal between Wallace’s mother and the University of Oregon, in which Oregon agreed to change the athlete’s transcript to remove reference to the sexual assaults.
In part because of the “apparent predatory nature” of the acts, the university had marked Wallace’s transcript with a rarely used notation that would alert other schools to his actions, records show. “Expelled for sexual misconduct,” his transcript said.
But with the federal agency’s help, Loleta Wallace brokered a deal in which Oregon amended her son’s transcript to say simply, “Expelled for student conduct,” records show, a change that would make other schools more likely to recruit him.
Oregon promised Loleta Wallace that the August 2018 resolution agreement would “not be discoverable or releasable” under the Freedom of Information Act, but the USA TODAY Network obtained a copy from a university source.
Said university spokesman Kyle Henley: “The matter was resolved between the university and the former student’s mother, and OCR dropped its investigation shortly after it opened it. At no time did OCR indicate to UO that OCR had concerns about the accuracy, adequacy, or fairness of our Title IX processes.”
The intervention by the OCR is part of a broader shift in the agency’s interpretation of Title IX, experts said. The 47-year-old law prohibiting sex discrimination in education historically has shielded women from environments where sexual assault and harassment are tolerated.
But as Wallace’s case illustrates, OCR now is applying the law to a broader range of claims, including those made by male students — or their mothers — claiming reverse sex discrimination in disciplinary proceedings.
Two factors in particular triggered the OCR’s investigation into Wallace’s case, an Education Department official confirmed. First, Oregon had a program offering free legal services to survivors but not to accused students. Second, Oregon didn’t allow Wallace to play or attend football games as part of his interim suspension during the investigation.
In a statement, Oregon attorney Kevin Reed noted that the student government pays for legal services for all students, and that its program for survivors, the Domestic Violence Clinic, is funded by a federal grant.
“We are very proud of the service the clinic provides and do not think there is any real risk that OCR was going to find UO in violation of civil rights laws due to its administration of a grant from the United States Department of Justice,” Reed said.
KC Johnson, a Brooklyn College professor who tracks litigation involving students accused of sexual misconduct, said Wallace’s case is the first he’s heard of in which the OCR took the position that unequal resources for the accused can constitute sex discrimination against men.
“It’s quite rare,” Johnson said, “and very significant.”
The Department of Education told the USA TODAY Network that it neither approved nor endorsed the deal and acted simply as a neutral facilitator after opening the investigation.
Prairie View A&M officials and coaches declined to comment. Wallace and his parents did not return numerous phone, email and social media messages.
The ordeal forever changed the life of Blake McKay, one of Wallace’s two victims. She never expected when she came to the school as a freshman that she’d wind up pursuing a career in sexual assault prevention and survivor advocacy.
Now an Oregon senior, she heads the Organization Against Sexual Assault student group on campus and worked as a trained legal advocate for child victims of physical and sexual abuse.
It has helped her heal, she said.
McKay hasn’t spoken publicly about the case until now. She hopes publishing her name will empower other rape survivors. And she took the NCAA to task for enabling such behavior.
That nothing prevented Wallace from continuing his college football career after the school found him responsible for two separate charges of rape shows that “the NCAA really provides support for athletes to do things like sexual violence,” she said.
With that support, Wallace has little incentive to change, she said.
“I don’t think that he should have the opportunity to be in that environment because it supports his behavior,” McKay said. “He’s still embedded in that culture of being celebrated, being entitled and being able to do whatever he wants.”
Four months, two victims
Wallace arrived on campus at the University of Oregon shortly after graduating from DeSoto High School in Texas. Fall quarter hadn’t yet started, but the freshman participated in football practices and team meetings while settling into college life.
During this time, Wallace met a couple of female students through the photo-sharing app Instagram, police reports show. He initiated a conversation with one by posting hearts on her photo. He reached out to the other through a direct message saying, “your so gorg (sic).”
Both women separately agreed to meet Wallace in person for the first time in September 2016.
One of them was McKay. On her first date with Wallace, the athlete wanted sex but she told him no, that she was a virgin and that it was against her religion, according to her account in a police report. She found it respectful when Wallace ceased his attempts, she added.
On their next date, they were making out and undressing in Wallace’s bedroom when he started putting a condom on, a police report shows. She again told him no, that she wasn’t ready.
But Wallace told her she wouldn’t have come over if she didn’t want sex and that God wanted them to have sex, she told police. Wallace forced himself on her as she told him, “No, I don’t want to do it,” but he “pinned” his leg over hers so she couldn’t move, she told police.
Less than two weeks after McKay’s assault, the second female student met Wallace for the first time at a party in his apartment where he repeatedly encouraged her to drink, a police report shows.
While at the party, Wallace pulled her into the bathroom. He started kissing her then flipped her around so she was facing the sink and forced his penis into her from behind, the report says. She told him “loudly” and a “few times” that she didn’t want sex, she said. He responded, “But we already are,” she told campus officials. She got away by twisting and pushing his chest, she said.
She recalled Wallace later pulling her into a bedroom at the party, trying again to have sex with her and not letting her leave. After finally getting out, the next thing she remembered was walking home with a group of friends and Wallace, the report shows. She and Wallace entered her apartment alone after her friends went a different direction, the report shows.
Wallace followed her to bed, she told police. She told him she was “too drunk” and “too tired” to have sex, but he forced himself on her, she said. She kept trying to get away, but Wallace didn’t stop, she said. At some point she fell asleep or passed out, she said.
When she woke up the next morning, Wallace began kissing and feeling her body again, she said. She “blocked it out” as he raped her again, she told police.
Over the following days and weeks, she found herself “crying all the time,” she told police. She underwent a rape-kit examination and was often scared, she said. Her sleep and studies suffered, and she stopped going out. Her friends told police she dropped classes and didn’t want to sleep in her own bed, sometimes staying at friends’ houses or a hotel instead.
McKay reported a similar reaction, telling police that before the night with Wallace she’d been an open, outgoing person who liked meeting people. After, she found it hard to open up and trust others. She was scared she might run into Wallace on campus, couldn’t focus in class and found herself “anxious all the time.” She ended up dropping a class.
Both women separately reported their assaults to campus officials in October 2016, records show. University of Oregon administrators and campus police led concurrent investigations and spoke to more than two dozen witnesses.
Wallace declined to be interviewed at the advice of an attorney his parents hired, Education Department records show, but he sent an email to campus officials during the investigation.
“(I)n both of my current situations these so called ‘VICTIMS’ are indeed not telling the truth,” Wallace wrote in the email. He added that the women reported him after they “realized that I did not want to pursue relationship (sic) with either one(.)”
In March 2017, a university Title IX investigator issued her findings. A preponderance of evidence established Wallace was responsible for both rapes, the investigator found. Oregon permanently expelled him and ordered the notation placed on his transcript.
Transcript notations often list the sanction, not the offense. But the investigator in this case said it was justified “due to the aggravating circumstances of the apparent predatory nature of the act itself,” “the use of physical force,” and the fact that Wallace had been found responsible for the violation twice, records show.
In May 2017, the Lane County District Attorney’s office declined to prosecute either case against Wallace. The burden of proof is higher for criminal cases than university cases.
“The issue is consent,” deputy district attorney Katherine Green wrote in both case evaluation memos. “Based on the evidence both from the criminal investigation and the student conduct investigation and proceeding, the state cannot prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Wallace withdrew from Oregon before either the student conduct or criminal investigations concluded.
He enrolled in January 2017 at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, about 80 miles from his hometown of DeSoto, Trinity Valley officials confirmed. He joined the football team that same year and caught eight touchdowns in 12 games, earning first-team all-conference honors for the season.
Wallace graduated at the end of the year with an associate degree, school officials said. That meant under NCAA rules he could transfer to any school.
But at the time, his transcript notation still declared he’d been, “Expelled for Sexual Misconduct.”
A university that knowingly brings to campus a student who’s committed a sexual assault elsewhere can be held liable if that student hurts someone else and the school did nothing to protect other students, according to multiple civil rights and Title IX attorneys.
It’s hard to deny knowledge when it’s written on the student’s transcript.
Reverse sex discrimination
Wallace’s mother was already on top of it.
Two months after her son’s expulsion from Oregon but before he took the field at Trinity Valley, Loleta Wallace filed the OCR complaint that triggered the federal investigation.
She alleged that the university discriminated against her son on the basis of his sex by “automatically assuming that a male is guilty of sexual misconduct because a female simply says so and doesn’t PROVE that such has occurred,” a copy of the May 2017 complaint shows.
She additionally believed that text messages exchanged between her son and each woman after the assault demonstrated his innocence, according to a transcript of her phone call with OCR officials.
Loleta Wallace also said Oregon discriminated against her son based on his race.
The OCR dismissed the race claim, saying it was too speculative, records show. But it agreed to investigate “whether the university discriminated against (Wallace) on the basis of sex when it failed to respond appropriately to incidents of sexual violence involving the student and two female students,” according to an April 2018 letter to university President Michael Schill.
Over the past several years, the Education Department has investigated hundreds of schools for mishandling victims’ reports of sexual assault. More recently, however, its priorities have shifted.
Under Barack Obama, the department made a policy choice to require universities to investigate reports of sexual violence as gender discrimination under Title IX. The policy came in response to what the administration saw as a growing campus sexual assault crisis. Several studies found at least 1 in 5 female students reported being sexually assaulted in college.
But with DeVos as education secretary under Donald Trump, the department rescinded the policy and proposed new regulations that would result in fewer university Title IX investigations and fewer students held responsible.
For the first time, the regulations would explicitly say accused students can be considered victims of sex discrimination if the university treats them unfairly in the disciplinary process.
After receiving Loleta Wallace’s complaint, the OCR gave her and the university the opportunity to settle the matter on their own terms rather than fully investigating and issuing a ruling.
Removing the transcript notation was her top priority, records show. Asked by an OCR case worker if it was affecting her son’s ability to transfer, she responded in the affirmative, according to a non-verbatim transcript of that June 2017 phone call.
“We proactively transferred him before he got the notation,” Loleta Wallace said of her son’s switch to Trinity Valley. “But now because of the decision … they’ve indicated that they’ll mark his transcript. He will graduate with his associates degree. He will want to go back to a Division I school, but the coaches, the first thing they will ask will be the result of the investigation. They are all waiting and that will affect his recruitment.”
In an August 2018 resolution agreement facilitated by the OCR, Loleta Wallace dropped her complaint and Oregon promised to carefully review allegations of investigator bias and provide an advocate and support services for accused students in the future.
Importantly, Oregon also agreed to reword Wallace’s transcript notation.
“UO did change the notation on the transcript,” university spokesman Henley said, “to make it consistent with how transcripts are noted in all expulsion cases.”
“The university is constantly examining its Title IX processes with an eye toward improving our response to issues of campus safety as well as fairness,” Henley added. “The proposal to add a confidential respondents’ resources coordinator position was under discussion for many months before the resolution of the complaint with the former student’s mother.”
Said Johnson, the Brooklyn College professor, “It’s a statement from the OCR that a school can violate Title IX by unfairly treating an accused student.”
But that interpretation of the law is “problematic,” “dangerous” and part of a growing trend under Trump, said Sarah Nesbitt, policy and advocacy organizer for the nonprofit Know Your IX.
While unequal resources may be a legitimate concern, Nesbitt said, accused students can be of any sex or gender, and so can victims. So the imbalance is not unique to one gender or sex, she said. But accused students are overwhelmingly male, so the Education Department is making a leap that unbalanced processes amounts to per se sex discrimination against men, she said.
“That’s not how sex discrimination works,” Nesbitt said. “Reclaiming the narrative of sex discrimination erases the very gendered nature of sexual violence.”
Back in action
McKay had hoped the transcript notation would protect other women by preventing, or at least limiting, Wallace’s recruitment to a new school, she said.
Oregon kept her in the dark as it negotiated the resolution agreement with Loleta Wallace, she said. After initially notifying her about the complaint, university officials did not update her again until after the school agreed to amend his transcript, she said. Looking back, she said, she would have appreciated a chance to be included or at least informed during that process.
She recalled being heartbroken upon learning the school had sanitized Wallace’s transcript notation.
“I felt like I just went through the reporting process for nothing,” she said. “I went through all this pain of trying to just get to the end of the case. Then they told me that they were removing it from his transcript, and I just felt almost useless.
“I get that the processes have to be fair for everyone involved, but it’s also not fair when you sexually assault someone.”
And yet, Prairie View A&M signed Wallace to its football team months before the settlement was reached.
Wallace’s transcript still noted his sexual misconduct when Oregon sent it to Prairie View in January 2018, Henley said — one month before first-year Prairie View head coach Eric Dooley signed him.
Dooley and other Prairie View officials have been silent about Wallace’s presence at the school and on the football team. Interim athletic director Alicia Pete and spokeswoman LaTonia Thirston ignored the USA TODAY Network’s emails for a month.
Finally, when presented with the detailed allegations against Wallace, Thirston responded, “In accordance with federal and state privacy laws, Prairie View A&M University cannot comment on a student’s disciplinary history, if any, or admissions process.”
More than three years after the assaults, Oregon continues to deny public records requests for copies of both victims’ police reports, even redacted versions. But when Loleta Wallace filed a complaint with the OCR, the reports became part of a different public case file.
Bill Harbaugh, an economics professor and president of the Oregon faculty senate at the time, obtained a copy of the Education Department’s 615-page case file through a FOIA request and shared it with this reporter.
The department denied the USA TODAY Network’s subsequent request for the same file, after Oregon attorneys complained it released private information to Harbaugh.
Said Harbaugh, “I believe that public knowledge about sexual violence, and how universities respond or do not respond to it, helps encourage survivors to come forward and report and helps universities develop better policies and procedures.”
Wallace continues to play for Prairie View, which has a 6-5 record this season. He leads the team with 40 catches. In his two years there, he has racked up more than 1,100 receiving yards. He was also a reserve player last season on the Prairie View basketball team, which made an appearance in the March Madness tournament earlier this year.
A banner on campus featuring him in his Panthers uniform reads, “Where champions are built.”
He has one more year of NCAA football eligibility remaining. Assuming he graduates in the spring and stays out of trouble — campus police say they have not received any assault reports involving him — he could use the graduate-transfer exception to play for another school.
Or he could aim for his dream job, listed on his Prairie View bio: NFL.