A coalition of 30 current and former students of the University of California, Berkeley announced Wednesday that they will be filing Title IX and Clery complaints against the university with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and Clery Compliance Division (CCD). The students, all female survivors of sexual assault and harassment while attending UC Berkeley, allege that the university administration failed to properly respond to sexual assault and sexual harassment on campus.
At a press conference at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Wednesday afternoon, six students who are sexual assault and harassment survivors gave statements regarding their experiences with sexual assault and harassment on the Berkeley campus. They were joined by fellow students and Berkeley alumni in a showing of solidarity and support. The students called on the university to be held accountable, and for both the OCR and CCD to investigate their claims.
The students’ actions come at a time when there have recently been dozens of reported incidents of sexual assault and sexual harassment on college campuses around the country. This week, the University of Michigan came under investigation by the OCR for how the university handles sexual assaults. The occurrences have become so pervasive that the Obama administration has established a White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
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The OCR delivered a letter to college administrators in 2011, stating that sexual violence or harassment of students interferes with their “right to receive an education free from discrimination,” and universities not complying with the laws regarding the reporting of “criminal conduct,” including sexual violence, constitutes a violation of a student’s civil rights under Title IX.
Sofie Karasek, one of the organizers of the Berkeley coalition, told Rewire that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student in February 2012. After reporting the incident to university officials, and despite three other sexual assault survivors reporting the same student, the student was only found in violation of the university’s Code of Student Conduct; he was allowed to graduate early.
After Berkeley’s response to her sexual assault, Karasek sought a way to hold the university accountable. Last May, Karasek was part of a group of Berkeley students who filed a complaint with the OCR under the Clery Act, which requires all colleges to publicly report crime statistics, including stats for sexual assault.
Eight months later, Karasek says the Clery complaint has yet to be investigated. Despite multiple attempts to contact the Department of Education about the complaint‘s status, the students have received no response. “The parallels between Berkeley and the Department of Education is really striking,” Karasek told Rewire. “The intent of each may differ, but the impact is the same.”
After filing the complaint, Karasek said that many students came forward who wanted to share their stories. In the months since the original Clery complaint was filed, a coalition of students came together to seek action.
Included with the complaint are each students’ narratives, which explain
in detail their experience with sexual assault and sexual harassment on the UC Berkeley campus. Rewire was provided with five of these narratives, and a review of their content revealed different experiences with sexual assault or sexual harassment but shared experiences with how they felt the university administration neglected to appropriately respond to their allegations.
In the narratives, students say they were not readily informed of resources available to them, discouraged from filing complaints by university officials, accused of fabricating being sexual assaulted to excuse poor academic performance, not fully advocated for by Title IX coordinators, left out of the investigative process, received little or no support from the university administration, and felt an overwhelming sense of fear for their safety and that their concerns were going unheard.
In her narrative, Shannon Thomas described being sexually harassed by a classmate, both in person and online. Despite the evidence in Thomas’ case, the OPHD officer said the case “likely did not fulfill the high threshold for student-to-student harassment” in the university’s Code of Student Conduct. Aryle Butler was sexually assaulted on two separate occasions by the same student, and was told by university officials that there was no recourse for her because the rapes occurred off-campus, despite taking place under university supervision during a university-supported program.
Former graduate students who attended Berkeley in the 1970s, Ruth Milkman and Linda Blum, both joined the coalition and submitted narratives sharing their experience at the college during their tenure. Their experience was strikingly similar to the experience of sexual assault survivors at Berkeley nearly four decades later; an administration whose response to claims of sexual harassment was described as “vague and noncommittal.”
There are steps that are being taken to address sexual assault on college campuses. In addition to the Obama administration’s task force, there is also legislation pending in the California Assembly to address the issue. In January 2014, Karasek advised California Assembly member Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) on state legislation that would require that colleges report certain violent crimes, including sexual assaults, that occur on or near campus to local law enforcement agencies.
Karasek said the actions being taken by the federal and the state government are a “good first step,” but that more action needs to be taken. She believes that the federal government needs to take further action and that universities should face more significant penalties from non-compliance with Title IX.
Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issued a public statement Tuesday on the university’s ongoing effort to address sexual assault prevent and response on campus. He said the university will be implementing the use of a “confidential survivor advocate,” an additional investigator to the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, and an interim sexual misconduct policy “that allows survivors to appeal the resolution of sexual misconduct cases.”