U.S.

UC Berkeley’s sexual assault problem

University of California issues new sexual misconduct policy, but Cal students say the university botches assault cases

U.C. Berkeley students Meghan Warner, Iman Stenson and Shannon Thomas at a press conference on campus in February 2013. They were among dozens of students who filed a Title IX complaint against the school, alleging that it mishandled their sexual assault and harassment cases.
Marisa Taylor for Al Jazeera America

BERKELEY, Calif. — The University of California has told students that sex without a firm yes will be considered nonconsensual under a newly expanded policy on sexual violence that follows a series of allegations that U.C. Berkeley mishandled campus sexual assault cases.

The U.C. system’s new policy, which covers sexual and domestic abuse, harassment and stalking of students and staff on its 10 campuses, was officially made public Friday — just days after 31 women filed a federal complaint alleging that U.C. Berkeley behaved with “deliberate indifference” to their cases, which cover four decades.

“We have no tolerance for sexual violence or harassment of any kind,” said U.C. President Janet Napolitano in a release. “The university must, and will, hold itself to the highest standards, and I expect all of our locations to do everything possible to make everyone aware of these standards.”

The new policy is guided by the Violence Against Women Act, which was reauthorized in 2013 and calls for colleges and universities to align their guidelines with the law by the federal deadline of March 7, 2014.

Both U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, which are among the most prestigious public universities in the world, have come under fire for how they’ve handled students’ complaints about sexual violence and harassment. The state of California is in the process of auditing the schools’ sexual misconduct policies (PDF), along with those of San Diego State University and California State University at Chico, after complaints from student activists.

More pressure was applied on Feb. 26, when U.C. Berkeley students and alumni ranging from the class of 1975 to the class of 2016 filed a Title IX complaint, alleging that Berkeley botched their sexual assault and harassment cases. Lodged with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the challenge puts Berkeley in the spotlight as a new federal task force attempts to tamp down on campus sexual assaults.

Napolitano’s office told Al Jazeera in an email that the U.C. system’s new sexual misconduct policy (PDF), which has been up for public discussion since October 2013 (PDF), was issued on Feb. 25, more than a week before Friday’s announcement.

Also on Feb. 25, U.C. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks announced in a campuswide email the hiring of three staff members dedicated to dealing with such complaints, two of which specifically serve to provide support to sexual assault survivors.

Representatives from U.C. Berkeley and Napolitano’s office deny that the Feb. 25 changes were related to the students’ Title IX complaint filed on the following day.

A complicated history

Alongside academic achievements, U.C. Berkeley has long been known as a hub of progressive political activism, but the issue of sexual violence here has long been complicated.

In 1979, 13 women from U.C. Berkeley filed a Title IX complaint against the university, alleging that administrators failed to discipline a sociology professor who they said had sexually harassed dozens of students.

The university suspended the professor, El Baki Hermassi, for a semester. In the wake of the embarrassing national media coverage of the incident, he opted not to return.

Among those filing the 1979 complaint was Ruth Milkman, a lead organizer of the campus group Women Organized Against Sexual Assault (WOASH), which formed in 1978 to address sexual violence at U.C. Berkeley and the school’s alleged lack of procedures to combat it. Milkman, who is now a sociology professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, joined the latest Title IX complaint — making it her second filed against the university.

“As Berkeley alumni, we are troubled by the university’s apparent indifference and nonresponsiveness to the concerns voiced by the coalition,” she wrote in a statement submitted with the filing, “which are strikingly similar to those that motivated our own Title IX complaint decades ago.”

The group behind the most recent complaint says university staff members who handle sexual violence and harassment cases discouraged them from filing official complaints, failed to give appropriate punishments to their assailants and lacked sensitivity to what they had been through.

Berkeley graduate Nicoletta Commins told Al Jazeera that she was raped by a classmate in her off-campus apartment in January 2012. She reported the incident to the Office for the Prevention of Sexual Assault and the Center for Student Conduct, where she said she was told there would be an investigation and a disciplinary hearing in which she would participate.

But she never heard back from the university. She contacted the administration again in July 2013 and was told that her case had been resolved months earlier through an informal process called early resolution, used if the accused admits wrongdoing.

The administration and her assailant decided on a punishment without her input; he was given a reflective writing assignment and suspended from the university until 2015, after which he may return to finish his degree, according to an email from the university that Commins provided to Al Jazeera.

“A friend of mine joked that the only way he would have been expelled is if he had plagiarized his reflective writing assignment,” Commins said. “They treat us like nuisances that will only go away if they ignore us long enough.”

In a further challenge to Berkeley’s handling of sexual assault cases, students filed a federal complaint in April 2013 under the Clery Act — named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was raped and killed in 1986. The law requires colleges to accurately report statistics of sexual violence that occur on their campuses.

Berkeley is not alone among U.S. universities. Similar complaints have been filed against Dartmouth College, Occidental College, Swarthmore College, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Southern California and Yale University accusing them of sweeping sexual violence cases under the rug to avoid reporting a high number of cases in accordance with the Clery Act.

In February, California lawmakers proposed legislation that would establish affirmative consent as the standard for all college campuses and would bar students accused of sexual assault from using the excuse that they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol as a defense.

Commins said that in her case, she informed the university’s Title IX officer that she told her assailant no several times but was “treated as if I didn’t say it early enough or loudly enough … I don’t understand why she never asked me the simple question ‘Did you say yes?’”

Affirmative consent, under which a student would have to definitively say yes for the sex to be considered consensual and not in any way coerced, forms part of U.C. Berkeley’s new policy.

A resource gap

Shannon Thomas
Shannon Thomas

The Center for Student Conduct and the OPHD did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment about U.C. Berkeley’s sexual misconduct policies. Likewise, Denise Oldham, the Title IX officer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Al Jazeera.

Oldham told The Los Angeles Times in February that the university does not use early resolution for cases of sexual assault and that she “can’t imagine a situation where that would be appropriate.”

But the email to Commins from a student conduct officer reads, “Please note that your case was resolved through our informal process on March 5, 2013.” 

U.C. Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said the school is “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. That process remains underway.” 

She added that fewer than 10 sexual assault cases have gone through the Center for Student Conduct's disciplinary process since 2008 and that those assailants found responsible were “removed from campus.”

But some wonder if — at a university with more than 35,000 students and just a handful of officers handling sexual assault cases — more still needs to be done.

“One of the biggest issues we’re seeing is a resource gap,” said Timofey Semenov, 21, a senior at U.C. Berkeley who serves as student advocate, a role in which he helps advise both students filing complaints and those accused of conduct violations.

Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for Security on Campus, a nonprofit advocacy group, says that more important than legislation or changes in campus policies are sexual violence awareness campaigns, training in bystander interventions and education about what consent and healthy relationships look like. “I think that’s really the only way we’re going to see a substantial change in the culture,” she said.

When students are aware of what sexual violence is, she said, it creates a community that doesn’t accept it and more students come forward to report incidents.

“What it’s about is just having a fair, prompt and equitable process,” she said. Both Kiss and Semenov were speaking before to the new policy was announced.

Likewise, Shannon Thomas, 21, a senior at U.C. Berkeley, told Al Jazeera before Friday that she’s not sure that Berkeley’s latest measures have made a difference. At the beginning of this semester, she said a student in one of her classes started sexually harassing her, messaging her about “hate sex” and “politically motivated sexual assault.”

According to a statement accompanying the group’s Title IX complaint, when Thomas reported it to the OPHD, she was told the incidents didn’t meet the university’s high bar for sexual harassment, so the student wasn’t removed from their class, as she requested. The Title IX officer spoke with her assailant and told Thomas that he was “genuine and sincere” and said he was joking, so she shouldn’t worry, according to Thomas’ written narrative.

Thomas provided Al Jazeera with an email written to the Title IX officer on her behalf by a university dean who did not want to be named, saying that “for a representative of this university to characterize threats of ‘hate sex’ as a laughing matter is beyond shocking and completely unacceptable."

Thomas said that while she doesn’t blame the university for the harassment, she no longer trusts the school to stand up for her. “For four years, I dreaded leaving U.C. Berkeley,” she said, “and now I can't wait to get out.”

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