Standing behind a podium in the Van Duzer Theatre, clad in a brown suit with a green and gold striped tie, President Tom Jackson Jr. was in the midst of delivering the first fall welcome address of the newly rebranded Cal Poly Humboldt's young history. While the event opened with a multi-cultural performance by the university's dance program that culminated in a boisterous number to Kool and the Gang's "Celebrate!" that drew a standing ovation from those in attendance, Jackson's remarks were staid and businesslike.
He talked about the new academic programs and infrastructure projects that will accompany the campus' new-found status as the state's third polytechnic university. He talked about attendance numbers and community engagement efforts, about student housing concerns, a capital campaign and the mission of providing "positive, meaningful educational experiences," each talking point accompanied by a Power Point slide. He then turned his attention to "campus culture" and a bullet point titled "civility," and appeared to veer off script.
"Title IX — it's on here under civility, hiding under civility," Jackson said in reference to the federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in education that outlines a university's responsibilities to keep students and staff safe from sexual harassment and sexualized violence, though there was no Power Point slide to accompany the subject. "Title IX is a big topic for us. It's always been a big topic for us. We're a campus filled with secrets."
Jackson then said some things that alarmed advocates for survivors of sexual violence.
"Remember, Title IX was designed to be private, confidential, to solve a problem between individuals — not meant to be public and scrutinized in the national media. That is not what it was designed for," he said. "Imagine the ramification if you had a complaint made against you and it was played out in the national media .... It's troublesome, particularly when you were seeking relief on a private, confidential matter. You didn't want the rest of us to know it. Otherwise, you'd just publicize it. You see the difference? You don't need Title IX to tell the world that there's a conflict. Title IX is designed to solve it behind the doors in a meaningful, amicable way."
Laura Dunn, founding partner of the LL Dunn Law Firm in Washington, D.C., and a nationally renowned expert on Title IX, says Jackson's comments were both "completely erroneous" and "very disturbing," explaining the landmark law was aimed to end institutional discrimination, not keep allegations private, noting that the Clery Act specifically prohibits schools from "gagging survivors."
On Jackson's own campus, Sophie Effa, a graduate student in counseling psychology, who has worked with Check It, the university's student-led program that aims to create "a more consent-centered culture" but who spoke to the Journal in their capacity as a student, says they immediately worried Jackson's comments would have a negative impact.
"People in power should be protecting students, especially survivors of sexual assault," they say. "Unfortunately it was sounding like the opposite to me — like President Jackson was more concerned with protecting perpetrators on campus."
Almost 300 miles away and a month or so later, Jadence Clifton stumbled across Jackson's comments on Twitter while sitting in her dorm room at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, weeks after she says she decided to leave Cal Poly Humboldt, feeling the university hadn't responded appropriately to her report that she'd been sexually battered during a women's basketball practice on campus.
"It was crazy," Clifton says. "It felt like he was speaking to me."
- Jadence Clifton started all four of her years playing for the Del Norte High School Warriors, winning her league's co-MVP as a junior and having what a local sports journalist called the most dominant season of any Humboldt-Del Norte League athlete in any sport during her senior year.
Over the phone, the Journal asks Clifton if Jackson's comments motivated her to share her story publicly. Partly, she says. As a competitor, a local product who starred for four years at Del Norte High School before coming to Cal Poly Humboldt, Clifton says it also bothers her that people think she just quit. But it's bigger than either of those things, she says.
"I mean, I stayed a whole year being silent," she says. "I played the season. I kept it quiet. And when I did come out to Title IX and the university police, nothing happened. So, of course I want to be heard. I don't want this to happen to any other girl."
Clifton's arrival at Cal Poly Humboldt was the stuff of headlines and, for her, dreams.
A four-year standout playing for her father at Del Norte High School, Clifton's high school career was simply exceptional. She was her league's co-MVP as a junior, and likely would have won it again as a senior if the league had given out the honor at the end of the COVID-shortened season.
"No one player in the [Humboldt-Del Norte League] had a more dominating season in any sport," local sports journalist Ray Hamill wrote of Clifton after her senior campaign, which saw her become Del Norte High School's all-time leading scorer and one of 700 high school girls basketball players nominated for the McDonald's All-American team.
Clifton had signed a letter of intent to play college basketball at Oregon Institute of Technology in 2020 but quickly changed course when Cal Poly Humboldt (then still Humboldt State University) Head Coach Michelle Bento-Jackson came calling the following year with a scholarship offer. In a press release announcing Clifton's signing, Bento-Jackson praised her as a "talented gym rat" and a "special young lady on and off the court" whom the "Humboldt community will fall in love with."
- Jadence Clifton attended camps in Lumberjack Arena as a kid growing up in Del Norte County and wanted to play somewhere close to her family.
"For Jadence to have participated in Humboldt State basketball camps as a youngster and now to be receiving a basketball scholarship to play for our women's basketball program is a great story," Bento-Jackson said in the release, which touted Clifton's season averages of 22.4 points, 11.7 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 8.5 steals per game, along with her being twice named to Del Norte High School's honor roll.
Everything felt right, Clifton says.
"I had dreamed of going there," she says, adding that she'd envisioned a college career playing in Lumberjack Arena in front of friends and family.
But by the time that dream became a reality, Clifton says it felt more like a waking nightmare.
Five days before the Lumberjacks opened their season with an exhibition game against Southern Oregon University, Clifton says she was at practice, working her way back from a knee sprain that had kept her off the court for a few weeks. The team had been scrimmaging five-on-five when Bento-Jackson gave her players a few minutes to take a water break.
That's when, Clifton says, Bento-Jackson's husband, Al Jackson, called her name and pulled her aside. Clifton says Al Jackson told her her to keep her off arm rigid when she dribbled by a defender — rather than letting it go limp at her side — to maintain space. Then, she says, Al Jackson demonstrated what he meant, grabbing her hand and holding her arm out to the side. But when he did this, Clifton says, he placed her hand directly on his genitals.
"I pulled my hand right away and looked at him in the eye, and he just turned and walked away in the opposite direction super quickly," Clifton says. "I was just in shock, like, 'Did that really happen?'"
In an email responding to Journal questions, Bento-Jackson says her husband "has denied what has been alleged," both in a police interview and to Title IX investigators. The Journal asked Al Jackson's attorney about the allegation and he says his client "categorically denies" it.
Clifton says she tried alternately to block the moment out and to convince herself it was an accident, but neither worked. She says she remains convinced it was an intentional act and, in the months that followed, she says it came to haunt her.
"That whole year, I just couldn't stop thinking about it," she says. "Just seeing my coach, it was in the back of my head. Always."
While Clifton says Al Jackson had attended several practices before that, she didn't see him at another after. (Bento-Jackson says her husband only attended two practices, both in October, to give their son a ride home, and "does not work with my players in any capacity whatsoever.") Clifton says she's only seen the man twice since — once at the exhibition opener five days later at Lumberjack Arena, and again at an away game against Chico State University in December.
"It didn't seem like a coincidence that he just never came around after that; I think that he realized he messed up, that he'd done this to the wrong person," Clifton says of Al Jackson's subsequent absence from the team, adding she thinks he hoped it would just go away.
But Clifton says it didn't go away for her but became ever-present — something she thought of when looking at Bento-Jackson or her and Al Jackson's son, who frequently attended practices and sat on the team bench during home games. She grew distracted in class and didn't want to eat. Perhaps more troubling, Clifton says she'd grow anxious before practice and games.
"That's the thing — basketball is the only thing I do," she says. "My dad's a coach. I grew up in it. It's always been there my whole life. Basketball is everything."
But she says all that had changed in an instant during that water break. On the court, Clifton's season seemingly had some bright spots. She took over one of the team's starting guard positions in January, put up 24 points to help the Lumberjacks snap a five-game losing streak against rival Chico State University and notched a near triple-double in a dominant win over Stanislaus State University a couple days later.
But she says none of it brought her much joy. She says she began withdrawing from teammates, holding this secret she didn't feel she could tell them, and would leave team dinners partway through. She started driving home to Del Norte County every weekend. One day, she told her dad she didn't want to play anymore, that she felt "done with basketball."
When the Lumberjacks' season came to a close, Clifton says she decided to come forward. She was due to have an exit interview with Bento-Jackson the following week and says she couldn't bear the thought of sitting across from her, so she decided to talk to her coach's boss, Athletic Director Cooper Jones. Clifton says she'd met Jones before — noting he sent her a couple of nice emails checking in on her recovery from the knee injury — but didn't know him well. She says she was scared, both of finally verbalizing something secret that had dominated her life for months and of the possibility of running into Bento-Jackson, whose office is near Jones'. After trying unsuccessfully to drop in to see Jones on April 29, Clifton says she waited outside the arena until she saw Jones return and then approached him.
"I remember it pretty vividly," she says, adding that she sat down across from Jones in his office.
"I just started out — I started out," she says, her voice trailing off over the phone. "I just told him that I had something to tell him and then got super emotional. I had written down what I wanted to say, so I just handed my notebook over to him and had him read it."
She says she was a knot of nerves and emotion as she watched Jones read her account, then sit silently for what felt like minutes.
"He seemed to be in complete shock," Clifton says. "He told me how sorry he was that that had happened, that he hadn't been there to protect me in that situation. He told me he has daughters and couldn't even imagine the pain I was feeling, how emotional I was feeling, what I was going through. ... It felt so good to get it out but also opened up so much more. I was scared to walk out of that office, honestly."
Jones declined to comment for this story, but Clifton says he told her there would be support he could get her, that he would help any way he could and "connect [her] with the right people." Clifton says she told him she was leaving campus and heading home, and that Jones gave her his phone number. She says she felt like Jones "had [her] back."
Driving up U.S. Highway 101, Clifton says she felt a weight start to lift.
"The drive home after I talked to Cooper, I felt free, honestly," she says.
When Clifton got home, she says she told her parents, describing the conversation as "really tough." She says they were shocked and frustrated, upset she didn't tell them sooner, but supportive. And they said it made sense, her dad saying he'd been confused to hear her say she wanted to quit the sport they'd always loved together. Clifton says her mom later did some searching online and found some newspaper articles from 2005 detailing how Bento-Jackson faced allegations of being verbally abusive with her players while coaching at Santa Clara University, while multiple players accused Al Jackson of making inappropriate and sexually suggestive comments to them. Both Bento-Jackson and Al Jackson denied the allegations, and the university later gave Bento-Jackson a two-year contract extension. (Asked about the past allegations for the story Al Jackson's attorney said they were "baseless.")
On May 1, a couple days after her initial meeting with Jones, Clifton says she and her parents met the athletic director at an Arcata restaurant and spoke further.
"We just wanted to know what to do," Clifton says. "He just gave us the Title IX phone number and who to contact. He was super supportive. It made me feel like I would be able to return to play basketball without worries of this happening again, and that he was going to be totally supportive."
Clifton says Jones told her Bento-Jackson had been instructed not to contact her or her family as the process played out.
After the meeting, Clifton says she and her mom went to her dorm room to pack up her stuff.
On May 3, Bento-Jackson sent a message to the team's group chat, which included Clifton and all her teammates.
"Good morning everyone — I want to let you know that Jadence is okay and she is home with her family," Bento-Jackson wrote. "She is safe, but has stepped away from school and the team at present so she can take care of herself. Let's all respect this at that moment and give Jadence her space. Always remember, we are a family and what happens within our family stays within our family only. There is no need to discuss the situation with anyone. If anyone in [the] weight room asks where she is, just say she had another obligation. Please respect this!"
She closed the message with a green heart emoji.
Bento-Jackson tells the Journal she sent the message after Jones had informed her Clifton was safe, saying she and the team had grown worried when she missed team activities and wasn't responding to texts.
"To be absolutely clear, when I sent that team text out on May 3, I knew absolutely nothing about the allegation against Al," she says, adding that she would learn of the allegation against her husband later that day.
On May 5, Clifton says she talked to the University Police Department to make a report, which spawned a criminal investigation.
On May 16, Clifton filed a formal complaint with the university's Title IX office, officially starting the process. The following day, the university acknowledged receipt and advised her the next step, if she chose to take it, would be to set up an intake appointment to see if the complaint qualified for an investigation.
- Jadence Clifton said accepting a basketball scholarship to play at Cal Poly Humboldt was a dream come true.
Clifton says she gave it some time but the appointment was ultimately scheduled for July 15, when she and her mom again met with Jones — this time over Zoom — and Cal Poly Humboldt Title IX Investigator and Clery Director Nicki Viso. Clifton says she was told that Viso was there to take the report and see if the situation qualified for a Title IX investigation. She says he was asked if the university could make any accommodations that would make Clifton comfortable playing for Bento-Jackson again and Clifton said no. Then, Clifton says, Jones told her the university planned to keep Bento-Jackson as its coach.
"He said he supported me whether I played or not, that I would be on a scholarship from the women's basketball program, that whether I played basketball or not, my school and housing would be paid for," Clifton says.
It's unclear exactly when the university decided to bring back Bento-Jackson as coach, but it appears to have been around the time Clifton says she initially came forward to Jones. Bento-Jackson's contract for the 2021-2022 season ended April 30, and the university sent the coach a letter May 12 reappointing her to the position, effective May 1, for another year at a salary of $111,312.
In the days and weeks after the July 15 meeting with Jones and Viso, Clifton says she spoke to investigators with the university's Title IX team to give an official statement.
Clifton says she spoke to her teammates in May, requesting a meeting with them in one of their apartments when she returned to Arcata to turn in her dorm key.
Clifton says after she made her initial report to Jones, she'd turned off her phone for a couple of days, missed the team's end-of-year banquet and skipped a scheduled meeting with some teammates and a recruit. She says her teammates showed up to her requested meeting but the energy felt off.
"They seemed mad at me," she says. "I sat them all down, and I could feel that energy, and I just told them what happened. It was really emotional for everyone. I remember I started crying, then everyone started crying. I told them how much they all meant to me, how each of them helped me through the year, even if they didn't know it."
One teammate, Clifton says, said it made sense, noting that Clifton had withdrawn from the team, going home every weekend, skipping team dinners and bonding sessions or leaving them early.
"You were there and then you weren't there," Clifton recalls the teammate saying, adding that another brought up what she felt was a disconnect between the situation and Bento-Jackson's repeatedly preaching the concept of accountability, saying, "How can you hold us accountable for all these things when you can't even keep us safe from your own husband?"
Clifton says telling her teammates was hard, as she knew nothing was going to be the same with them after that.
"It was just a lot of emotion," she says. "It was rough."
As the Journal went to press Oct. 25, it had been nearly seven months since Clifton's initial report to Jones, initiating the Title IX process. She says she gets notifications occasionally that the investigation remains ongoing, that because her case is "so unique" it's taking longer. But she says she's kind of "lost hope" it will result in much.
Dunn, the lawyer who founded a firm specializing in Title IX cases, says it's unfortunately not unusual these days for Title IX investigations to stretch months, noting that while the law states investigations must be "prompt," the Trump administration loosened previous guidelines defining that as within 60 days.
"Schools have taken significant advantage," Dunn says. "There's no reason the investigation shouldn't be done, bluntly, very soon."
Because Clifton's report came toward the end of the spring semester, Dunn says best practices would have been for the university to wrap up the Title IX process over the summer to spare her having to enter a new school year with it unresolved. As it was, Clifton says she planned on returning to Humboldt and just not playing basketball but, as the school year drew closer, she came to feel that was untenable.
Dunn says Title IX is designed to make universities afford survivors of sexual harassment and violence the same opportunities they had previously, in part through what are called "supportive measures," which can be anything from counseling services to to being moved to another residence hall. When it comes to Clifton's case, Dunn says she's unsure if any supportive measures could have made her comfortable continuing to play for a team coached by Bento-Jackson, but she says they should have been discussed.
A problem is the law only requires schools to offer supportive measures.
"They'll say, 'If you need supportive measures, let me know,'" Dunn says. "But the average person will have no idea what that means. No idea. And we're talking about people already in trauma. They're not sitting around pondering what supportive measures means. Ideally, they'd say, 'We can figure out a way for you to remain a student athlete. What do you need? What are you concerned about?' Those are hard things to get out. How do you get the school to actually care about the survivor and not just go through the checklist?"
Cal Poly Humboldt spokesperson Grant Scott-Goforth said he couldn't comment specifically on any ongoing investigations to protect them and due to privacy issues. But he said the university does have a Campus Advocate Team available around the clock to provide support through every stage of the Title IX process, noting that the team can also request supportive measures on behalf of the individual.
Another aspect of Title IX is that it's designed to keep others protected from any ongoing threats on campus. The Journal asked Scott-Goforth if Al Jackson continues to have access to the women's basketball team, its practices and its players.
"Generally speaking," Scott-Goforth says, "in Title IX cases and other situations, the university intervenes as necessary when there is a risk to the health and safety of members of the campus community. This can result in variety of things, including individuals being directed to stay off campus."
Cal Poly Humboldt protocol dictates that athletic teams' practices are closed to the public, Scott-Goforth says, but they may be attended by athletics staff, "as well as family members." Scott-Goforth declined to comment on whether the university is aware of any other allegations of inappropriate conduct against Al Jackson during Bento-Jackson's tenure in Humboldt, saying the "university doesn't comment on ongoing investigations."
Asked the same questions, Bento-Jackson says there have not been "any other allegations against Al Jackson." She says, "in general, Al does not and never has attended practices," and does not participate in team functions.
For her part, Clifton says she feels like she's been in limbo for months now, caught between a desire to move on and wanting to see justice served in her case.
"It's super frustrating," she says. "I'm just tired."
When President Jackson discussed Title IX during his fall welcome address, some assumed it was a reference to a USA Today investigative report published in April on John Lee, a former dean who was fired from his administrative role after a campus investigation found he'd groped two colleagues but was allowed to return to a tenured teaching position with an annual salary of $154,000 under a "retreat" clause in his contract. Lee now works among some of the same faculty as the women he was found to have harassed.
Lee declined to comment when approached by USA Today, but many others involved in the case did, with one of the women Lee was found to have harassed saying, "Retreat rights is not designed to be a Get Out of Jail Free card, but that's exactly how it's being used."
The women involved in Lee's case told USA Today they feel unsafe on campus but have been told by everyone from CSU attorneys to Jackson that nothing can be done at this point.
Whether the months-old story was indeed what spurred Jackson to discuss Title IX, many found it odd the president would address the issue at an event ostensibly designed to welcome faculty and students to a new school year. But many also found the content of Jackson's remarks more troubling than their context.
"We certainly have individuals that do things they shouldn't, there's no question about that," Jackson said. "But I'm saying it also that, as we scrutinize each other, let's recognize that today we may be scrutinizing someone but tomorrow that someone may be us. And the [Title IX] process is designed to be behind the door so that we can resolve it for the individuals that are involved, not to celebrate it or promote it or use it for personal gain later on. ... I hate being in the news because we have so many positive things happening on our campus. And each time we take a nip at our university, it is read by the very students and parents we want to come to this university. So we're shooting ourselves in the foot."
Effa, the graduate student who worked with the campus organization promoting consent culture, says the first thing that caught their attention in Jackson's remarks was his reference to the campus having secrets, saying his phrasing made it sound like the university was actively trying to sweep allegations under the rug.
"That's obviously problematic for a lot of reasons," they say. "Then, it sounded like he was sympathizing with perpetrators, not saying anything about the survivor's experience, not sympathizing with them. ... Imagine being in that room and hearing that message from the president of Cal Poly Humboldt and being a survivor."
Survivors of sexualized violence can feel powerless, Effa says, "like it was just stripped away from them," so they should be empowered to tell their stories, or not, as they choose. But no one, they say, should be pushing them to either speak out or remain quiet, least of all the president of a university.
"When someone like President Jackson dissuades or discourages survivors from speaking out, that can make perpetrators feel more comfortable causing harm and therefore make rape culture even more prevalent on our campus," Effa says.
Dunn, the Title IX expert, says Jackson's remarks only addressing the point of view of the accused is what feminists call "himpathy."
"In my opinion, this man is not qualified for leadership in higher education," Dunn says. "He is literally advocating that they keep stuff like this under the rug, openly and unapologetically. He should be removed from his position."
- Photo by Mark Larson, courtesy of Cal Poly Humboldt
- Coach Michelle Bento-Jackson, who was hired to take over the women's Lumberjack basketball team in 2016, watches her team play the San Francisco State University Gators last season.
Reached again several weeks later to discuss Clifton's case, Dunn says the law simply provides a minimum standard but truly doing well by survivors takes a university-wide commitment to caring about them, and building that culture generally starts at the top. She circled back to Jackson's comments, calling them "astounding in this day and era."
"Your culture is wrong," she says. "Your culture doesn't have the right values."
Talking to the Journal in October, Clifton says she's in a better place, physically and mentally, than she's been in quite some time. As the school year approached, she began to dread the idea of returning to Cal Poly Humboldt and giving up basketball to do so. She says a friend was attending College of the Redwoods and playing volleyball, so she decided, "Screw it, I'll go there and try to get my love back for playing ball."
As a part of withdrawing from Humboldt and enrolling at CR, Clifton says she put her name in the National College Athletic Association's transfer portal, which allows student-athletes looking to change schools to put their name on list for prospective coaches to see. She says she'd moved into the CR dorms, enrolled in classes and was practicing with the team when she got a call from Scott Meredith, the assistant coach at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. He had recruited her to play at Oregon Tech when he coached there and asked if she would accept a scholarship to again play Division 2 basketball. She says she immediately said yes, and within 12 hours had dropped her classes at CR and was planning a move to the city.
As to where things go from here, Clifton says she's not sure.
Responding to a Journal inquiry on Oct. 14, Assistant Humboldt County District Attorney Stacey Eads said her office was reviewing UPD's investigation into Clifton's allegations, which she said had been forwarded by UPD in September with a recommendation for a misdemeanor sexual battery charge against Al Jackson. As the Journal was going to press Oct. 25, Eads followed up to say a charging determination had been made: "We are not pursuing charges as there is insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime occurred. The victim has been notified of the decision."
Bento-Jackson, meanwhile, is preparing to coach the Lumberjacks for another season. She says she and Al Jackson "followed up with" UPD after her husband went in voluntarily for an interview as a part of the investigation last spring and "were told that the investigation was complete and the matter would not be pursued." She says it is "entirely false that the UPD or any law enforcement agency has recommended charges."
The Lumberjacks squad is only returning three players from last year's team, as Clifton and four other players with eligibility remaining are not coming back. Turnover, it seems, has been an issue with Bento-Jackson's squads going back to the 2019-2020 season, when six players with eligibility remaining didn't return. Four players — three freshmen and a junior — did not return the following year.
The coach alluded to this in her responses to the Journal. Asked if there's anything she feels could have been done to keep Clifton at Humboldt in a situation "in which she was made to feel safe and comfortable," Bento-Jackson responded that Clifton didn't have the type of season "any of us expected" and the team had a "terrible season." As a result, Bento-Jackson says she needed to "beef up her roster by bringing new athletes into the program." She says she told her team after the season that everyone's scholarship dollars, housing allowance and other aid would likely be reduced as a result. Additionally, some returning players would see new competition at their positions, she says.
"As the head coach and the person that needs to break this news to players, anger is often directed at me," Bento-Jackson says. "Sometimes that anger turns into a desire to do harm."
For her part, Clifton says she's not trying to do anyone harm and is simply trying to undo some of the harm done to her and prevent it from happening to anyone else. But really, she's trying to focus on the one thing that used to be everything: basketball. She's practicing with her new team, looking forward to her sophomore season, wishing she could somehow leave everything that happened at Cal Poly Humboldt behind her. But she says she knows that's not possible, at least for now. Nonetheless, she says she's happy to be in a new environment where the court once against feels safe.
"I think that love of basketball is really coming back," she says.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.