Berkeley students allege university mishandles sexual assault cases

UC Berkeley students file a federal complaint that the university treats sexual assault with ‘deliberate indifference’

UC Berkeley students Meghan Warner, 20, Sofie Karasek, 20, and Shannon Thomas, 21, are three of the women who are filing a Title IX complaint about how the university handles sexual assault and harassment.
Marisa Taylor

BERKELEY, Calif. — A group of students and alumni from the University of California, Berkeley, filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday morning, alleging that the university mishandled their cases of sexual assault and harassment.

Thirty-one students and former students, ranging from the class of 1975 to the class of 2016, said that UC Berkeley behaved with “deliberate indifference” when handling their reports of sexual assault and harassment. They allege that when they went to the university for help, administrators frequently discouraged them from formally reporting their assaults, neglected to keep them informed about the investigative process and failed to punish their assailants.

"UC Berkeley must fix its policies both in writing and in practice, including expelling rapists who continue to cause enduring damage to students, and holding administrators accountable for illegal actions and deliberate inaction," the women said Wednesday in a release.

“Berkeley has this reputation for being very progressive and social-justice-minded,” Sofie Karasek, 20, a junior and a political economy major who spearheaded the effort, told Al Jazeera. “So that was really what struck me about having the administration be completely indifferent to my assault, because I was not expecting that from a university with a progressive reputation, which I thought would be willing to help me.”

Karasek alleges she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year by a senior, a leader of a student organization she had joined.

She filed a formal complaint in April 2012 with the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination and the Center for Student Conduct, with three other women who said they were assaulted by the same student. But the women say they never received any updates about their cases.

She was also unsuccessful in trying to have her alleged assailant removed from the student group to which they belonged, and said the university's Gender Equity Resource Center advised her that the group should "keep him close in case he does it again" so that he would "have a community of friends to support him in processing it."

"Why should his healing process take precedent over the possibility that he could assault me again, or assault another person?" Karasek said Wednesday.

Luckily, when they asked him if he would leave the group, he agreed.

University spokeswoman Janet Gilmore did not respond to that specific allegation, but said that since 2008, there have been fewer than 10 rape cases reported to the Center for Student Conduct. "In those cases where students were found responsible, all of those students were removed from campus," she said.

Seven months later, when Karasek heard from friends that her alleged assailant was planning to graduate in December, she followed up with administrators again. Weeks later — and just two days before her assailant graduated — Karasek said administrators told her that her complaint had been resolved in an “early resolution process.” She said she had no input in the process and wasn’t told whether her assailant received any punishment.

The women filed their complaint with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights under Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in any school or school activity that receives federal funds. The law can also be applied to sexual assault in certain cases. Indeed, the Department of Education in 2011 sent a guidance letter to all institutions, instructing them that "sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX."

The evening before the women filed their complaint, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent a campus-wide email informing students that the university would create three new positions at the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination “to improve access to resources and enhance the campus’ response to sexual assault.”

While UC Berkeley administrators declined an interview with Al Jazeera about sexual violence on campus, Gilmore said in an email last week that “we are committed to this issue and we are here to assist them in every step of the process, from prevention and educational efforts, to counseling, and investigation. This also means that we are committed to taking a close look at what we can do to better serve students and incorporate their concerns as we seek to address these issues.”

Gilmore said the Center for Student Conduct developed an interim policy on handling sexual misconduct during the 2013–14 school year. The Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act requires colleges and universities to bring their protocols for handling sexual assault cases into alignment with the law, which President Barack Obama signed on March 7, 2013. Gilmore added that the university has formed a Title IX compliance advisory group and has hired an additional Title IX staffer this school year.

Neither the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination nor the Center for Student Conduct responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The women who filed the complaint join a cadre of college students who have filed similar complaints against their schools, including Dartmouth College, Occidental College, Swarthmore College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Southern California and Yale University.

The number of Title IX complaints filed with the federal Education Department that related to sexual violence at the college level rose to 30 in the 2012–13 academic year, up from 11 complaints during the 2008–09 academic year, the department said in an email.

President Obama in January formed a new federal task force to combat sexual assault on college campuses, in response to a damning new report from the White House Council on Women and Girls (PDF) that found that nearly 1 in 5 college women are sexually assaulted by the time they graduate.

Aryle Butler, a junior majoring in geography who was among the women filing the complaint, said she was sexually assaulted twice during the summer of 2012. She said Wednesday that the OPHD repeatedly asked her the question "How many times did you say no?" She'd "lost track of how many times (she) was told, 'There's nothing we can do.'"

When asked what UC Berkeley’s sexual assault policy is now, Butler told Al Jazeera, “The policy is, don’t get raped.”

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