By Katy Murphy
The Oakland Tribune
(MCT) BERKELEY, Calif.
Students angered by how their campus handles sexual assaults have filed a sweeping new federal complaint against the University of California, Berkeley, drawing more scrutiny to a campus already facing a state investigation and mounting criticism.
For the second time since May, but in far larger numbers, a group of current and former students is asking the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the university, claiming Cal violated federal anti-discrimination laws by failing to protect them against sexual harassment and assault. And now their show of force is starting to get results from the university.
On Wednesday, in a powerful news conference at the campus’ journalism school, six of the women – wearing Cal T-shirts and sweatshirts – told stories of despair, frustration and pain. They say the campus disciplinary process – commonly used in addition to, or instead of, a criminal investigation – fails to investigate and punish assailants or to keep victims informed about the status of their cases.
Instead of feeling supported by their school, they said, they felt victimized again.
“I feel unsafe on my own campus, my own home. And the worst part of it is, I no longer trust my university to stand up for me. For four years, I dreaded leaving UC Berkeley, and now I can’t wait to get out,” wrote senior Shannon Thomas in the complaint.
Thomas was one of the women who told her story publicly on Wednesday, and for that reason this story is naming her. She said she received little help after reporting she was being sexually harassed and threatened by a classmate.
The outcry at Cal is part of a national movement of sexual violence victims pressuring their campuses to deal swiftly, consistently and fairly with a problem that – according to a White House task force report – affects one in five college women. The students decided to ask the Office for Civil Rights to investigate after not hearing for nine months from the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office about their complaint.
Cal’s sexual assault policies – and those of UCLA; California State University, Chico; and San Diego State – are also being probed by the state Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee. UC Berkeley has made changes and announced more Tuesday. But the young women said their treatment has not matched the rhetoric.
Iman Stenson said she returned after summer vacation last August to see a nametag for her assailant on the dorm room across the hall. When she complained, she said, she had to move to a different room.
Thomas said a Cal administrator concluded the classmate threatening “hate sex” in text messages and in social media this semester was merely joking, and that the campus would not pursue a conduct violation against him or remove him from her class.
Nicoletta Commins, a recent Cal graduate, said she learned about an informal disciplinary agreement between the university and her attacker about four months after it was reached, and only when she inquired. She also reported the case to the police and the young man was convicted of felony assault, she said.
Cal graduate Diva Kass described a 2009 disciplinary hearing in which she was not allowed to have a lawyer or present witnesses; the student accused of rape had both. The panel did not find the young man responsible for rape, and she was not permitted to appeal. (Berkeley police investigated but no charges were filed.)
“What really shocked me was Berkeley has this reputation of being a progressive school; I expected them to be supportive of a woman being assaulted by another student and to hold him responsible in a just way,” Kass, now in law school out-of-state, said in a phone interview. In September, Cal issued its first specific policy for sexual misconduct cases; it granted additional rights to alleged assault victims, who can now appeal. Before an informal resolution is reached with the accused student, the campus is supposed to consult with the victim.
A Cal administrator on Wednesday expressed sympathy for the women and a desire to improve its response.
“Berkeley wants to do the right thing and if we’re not doing the right thing we need to know what we can do differently,” said Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor of communications and public affairs. Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Tuesday pledged to hold assailants accountable and to support sexual violence victims.
In a prepared statement, Dirks said the campus was adding two positions – one to help victims understand the disciplinary process and another to investigate complaints – among other steps. Dirks also thanked student leaders “who have sought to raise awareness and catalyze necessary changes by sharing their own personal and painful stories of sexual assault.”
A Stanford law professor who led an overhaul of her campus’s disciplinary process for sexual assault victims said colleges across the country need to do better.
“These young girls had to drag the adults to the table, and that’s wrong,” said professor Michele Dauber. “Their activism is forcing us to do what we should have done.”
On Tuesday, the day before a group of students and alums announced their federal Title IX complaints about UC Berkeley’s sexual assault policies, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced new approaches to aid and comfort victims, including:
Creating a confidential survivor advocate position that will assist victims in the reporting process and help survivors secure emotional support and resources.
Authorized immediately adding an additional investigator in The Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination.
UC campus police will dedicate resources to assist victims who report sex crimes to them.
As previously announced, a new Interim Sexual Misconduct Policy allows survivors to appeal the resolution of sexual misconduct cases.