The University of Missouri’s sole victim advocate was prepared to leave her post last spring but was convinced to stay. A week later Taylor Yeagle was forced out of her role after she gave a media interview criticizing how the university’s Title IX appeals officials handled a client's case.

Yeagle for years was on the front lines of the university’s efforts to stop sexual violence as part of its Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center. Her advocacy work received praise from students she helped navigate the Title IX process for sexual assaults as well as from colleagues and university leaders.

But after Yeagle was interviewed by the Columbia Daily Tribune for a series of stories about the university's handling of Title IX cases, she and her supervisor were forced out of their positions, multiple sources told the Tribune.

Yeagle, along with longtime RSVP Coordinator Danica Wolf, were given the option of resigning and receiving an extra month’s salary and benefits, or risk being fired and getting nothing.

Their trouble began with an email sent to check their statements. Yeagle’s emailed quotes were pushed up the chain of command, and the message sent back down was that Yeagle shouldn’t have provided an interview, and Wolf shouldn’t have allowed it. The process of removing both happened quickly after their superiors obtained Yeagle’s quotes.

It didn’t matter that Yeagle only spoke about specific instances where the Title IX appeals process failed her client and why. And it didn’t matter that the student she spoke of had signed a university waiver granting Yeagle permission to talk.

The departure of Yeagle and Wolf cut the RSVP Center staff in half. A third employee, Chris Walters, left several months later. The abrupt turnover left the agency praised as “the most highly-rated, useful, respectful and helpful campus service” understaffed for nine months and counting.

Donell Young, assistant vice chancellor for student engagement and success, oversees MU’s social justice centers. Young began an internal job search to fill Yeagle and Walters' positions at the end of July. The search came up short. Young said he expects to have better luck hiring this spring.

He said it’s urgent the positions be filled but that the level of service provided by the RSVP Center hasn’t been impacted despite losing half its staff. The center was without a victim advocate between May and September, when an interim employee was hired. That employee became permanent in December.

“The service for our students has not dropped,” Young said. “Students still come in. If they come in for a crisis they’re still being served the same day, so that has been consistent and that has not changed at all.”

The center’s decline in resources came during the most crucial crisis time of the year for MU, and runs counter to recommendations made by the university’s Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence Task Force.

In 2017, the coalition, which included Wolf, Yeagle and Walters, raised concerns that the university didn’t have “adequate resources to respond to incidents.” The task force specifically noted that Yeagle, MU’s only advocate, had a caseload that “becomes more demanding each semester since this survey was conducted.”

“The University, however, cannot afford to cut services to respond to or prevent (sexual and intimate partner violence),” the report stated. “The Task Force recommends that, at a bare minimum, the University maintain existing resources in the RSVP Center and the Office for Civil Rights & Title IX.”

Neither Wolf nor Yeagle would comment for this article. Their signed agreements with the university, obtained by the Tribune through a records request, prohibits them from talking to the media.

Other employees and student leaders familiar with the case were willing to speak with the Tribune, still angry and in disbelief nearly a year later. They said Yeagle and Wolf were dismissed as a direct result of speaking up during the April interview. Yeagle and Wolf remained in good standing with MU and returned to employment in different capacities later on.

Double ultimatum

The Tribune’s “Left the in Dark” series was a two-part investigation that told the story of three rape survivors who went to Title IX looking for justice and came out worse off. Yeagle provided her advocacy services for Kelli Wilson, one of the survivors in the story, throughout her Title IX process. Yeagle agreed to speak with the Tribune about Wilson’s experience.

Both signed a “Consent for Release of Information” form, which waived Wilson’s confidentiality rights designated under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This allowed Yeagle to speak about the survivor’s otherwise confidential Title IX experience.

When Yeagle was interviewed April 20, she spoke of Wilson’s resiliency and confirmed the university made missteps in communication during Wilson’s Title IX appeals process. Yeagle acknowledged her frustration with how the university handled Wilson’s case and said officials’ actions felt “dismissive” and “minimizing” of her client’s experience.

After the original interview, Yeagle requested to review her quotes before the article published. The Tribune sent those statements to her university email on May 7.

That message was forwarded through the chain of command all the way to Kevin McDonald, vice chancellor for inclusion, diversity and equity. Title IX Coordinator Andy Hayes, two lawyers and three human resource professionals, including the university’s human resources director and several other university employees — totaling 11 people — were also looped in.

Two days later, Yeagle asked to speak with the Tribune reporter in person to clarify a few of her statements. She also expressed concern regarding the “overall tone that’s being conveyed.”

Wolf’s calendar, obtained through a records request, shows several meetings regarding Yeagle's quotes with supervisors such as Laura Hacquard, who oversees the RSVP Center, over the course of those few days.

On May 10, Wilson informed a Tribune reporter that Yeagle had been asked to “seek other employment” because of Yeagle’s statements to the Tribune. In tears, fearing that her own story would make matters worse for Yeagle’s slim chances of keeping her job, Wilson told the reporter she may need to pull her own story out of the article.

That same day, Yeagle asked the Tribune to remove the portions of her interview that criticized the university, and later for her statements to be withdrawn entirely. Yeagle’s quotes were removed from the final articles. The quotes resurfaced as part of a public records request by the Tribune in the fall.

Yeagle and Wolf both met with Young on May 21. The choice presented to them was to be fired or resign and receive an additional month’s pay. The letters were nearly identical except for names and dates of employment. Both women signed the agreements.

Wolf and Yeagle’s titles were changed on May 22 to “Program/Project Support Coordinator,” temporary roles that lasted until June 20.

An MU employee who works closely with the RSVP Center told the Tribune that neither Yeagle nor Wolf worked in the office after their titles were changed. The source also confirmed neither had planned on leaving but they were “given an ultimatum.” The name of the source is being withheld due to concerns of retaliation for speaking publicly.

Young has repeatedly declined to answer questions about Wolf and Yeagle’s departures or if their interviews with the Tribune played a role. When asked if he had any reason to believe the RSVP’s quality of service had dropped off, he spoke generally.

“We had great employees throughout the time we had the RSVP Center and we have great employees now,” he said.

Despite their abrupt exit, Wolf and Yeagle continued working for the university. Wolf taught a social work class last fall and Yeagle was hired as a clinical instructor at the Family Access Center of Excellence, according to employment records.

In response to the Tribune’s records request for all of the replies to the email chain containing Yeagle’s quotes, UM Custodian of Records Paula Barrett sent back a document that only included correspondence between a Tribune reporter and Yeagle. Barrett acknowledged there “were other documents responsive to (the Tribune’s) request” but said they were exempted from Missouri’s Sunshine Law. She also declined to provide the Tribune with names of university officials who received Yeagle’s quotes to the Tribune.

Upon request, MU spokesman Christian Basi promptly provided the Tribune with the list of university employees who received the email.

A ‘huge loss’ for MU

MU often lists student safety as one of its top priorities.

Last year the Association of American Universities’ Combating Sexual Assault and Misconduct report sang the university's praises for its $1.2 million investment to expand both the RSVP Center and the Office for Civil Rights and Title IX. This is the funding that first launched MU’s Title IX department and boosted the RSVP Center from one full-time employee to four. The report also recognized MU as one of nine universities surveyed that uses the Green Dot program, a peer-based prevention strategy introduced to students as early as summer orientation.

However, before 2015, the Title IX department did not exist and Wolf was handling dozens of crisis reports on her own. For five years she provided advocacy, prevention and education services.

Wolf connected MU with other universities and national organizations while providing her expertise on campus through presentations and events. Perhaps most importantly, Wolf was the main player in bringing Green Dot to the university.

“Green Dot provides hope to everyone who has been directly or indirectly impacted by violence to know that violence is not inevitable, that we can do something,” Wolf said in a 2016 MU news article. “My genuine goal is to put our office out of business.”

Demand for the RSVP Center and its resources, however, has only grown. When MU decided to increase the center’s budget in 2015, Wolf welcomed three new full-time employees, including Yeagle as the advocacy coordinator.

Yeagle served as the sole advocate for University of Missouri students, employees, faculty and MU Health Care staff.

All of Yeagle’s crisis intervention work certainly added up. In her original interview with the Tribune, Yeagle said it’s “unreasonable” for one person to maintain relationships with everybody and the RSVP Center can always benefit from more support. Having at least one additional person would make a huge difference, she said.

The MU Staff Advisory Council recognized her efforts in January 2018 by granting her the MU Service Champion Award.

Sean Olmstead, the LGBTQ Resource Center coordinator, nominated Yeagle for the monthly honor. In Yeagle’s nomination form, Olmstead wrote that he admired her work “that saves the lives of students” and is often “unthanked, unnoticed, and for the most part done quietly.”

Casey Campbell, one of Yeagle’s former clients, experienced some major twists during her Title IX case, as the Tribune reported. She said the process didn’t go all that well, but it would’ve been a lot worse without Yeagle there to explain what Title IX officials did not.

“I wouldn't have known what to ask, I wouldn’t have known if they were handling things correctly,” Campbell said. “She was the information person.”

Like Campbell, Wilson faced significant obstacles during her Title IX case and even considered hiring a lawyer at one point, but decided to stick with Yeagle because of her capability to get “around all the little games that were being played.”

Wilson remembers Yeagle having “a lot of tenacity” and a strong understanding of how to deal with trauma. Yeagle spoke with Wilson’s family, therapist and professors.

“She was very much there for me,” Wilson said. “She truly cared, about not just what was happening with the process but how it was affecting me in school.”

Although neither survivor had a particularly positive experience going through the Title IX process, both said they would not have picked anyone else as their advocate and would recommend Yeagle to others undergoing an investigation.

The MU employee who worked closely with the RSVP Center said Yeagle and Wolf’s departures were “a huge loss” for MU.

“I don’t know if those folks exist everywhere,” the source said. “I don’t know if we had a bunch more Taylors in the city of Columbia.”

The assertion is given credence by MU’s failed search for replacements.

Young said there have been good candidates but “the bar is very high for what we need in this space and we’re not going to settle.”

“This is too important to just have just anyone to fill the role just because we got to have a body in the spot,” he explained. “That’s not going to be effective and long term it's just going to be a disservice to our students.”

The staff page on the RSVP Center’s website still lists the four-person team that ran the office nine months ago. Only one of those members currently remains, along with the advocate permanently hired in December.

The office has been restructured since Wolf and Yeagle left, redistributing responsibilities between the two remaining employees rather than each having a distinct, solidified role.

“I haven't received any feedback that the level of service has dropped,” Young said. “With that being said, no place is perfect. There’s always going to be room for improvement.”