Bobak Ha’Eri / Wikipedia
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Bobak Ha’Eri / Wikipedia

CalArts to alleged rape victim: How long was your dress?

Student says California Institute of the Arts failed to protect her from the harassment of her rapist & his friends

Editor’s note: Regina asked to only be identified by her first name so her extended family wouldn't learn about her alleged rape.

When Regina, then a freshman at California Institute of the Arts, woke up in her rented room on Feb. 9 with her clothes half off, bruises on her thighs and neck, a splitting headache and a sharp pain in her bladder, she said she knew she had been raped. She removed her dress and put it in a paper bag.

Although she had been in and out of consciousness at the time, she said she remembered a classmate – a former brief fling – taking her into a dark bathroom at an off-campus party, choking her so that she struggled to breathe and then orally and vaginally raping her on the floor as she repeatedly said "no."

A text exchange between a classmate and Regina, two days after the party.

In a voicemail left on a friend's phone in the early hours of the morning after the party, and obtained by America Tonight, Regina is distressed, pleading for help and repeating that she doesn't know where she lives. A classmate who was at the party, and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he knocked on the bathroom door out of concern. Two days later, he texted Regina, saying that he saw that she was unable to give consent and was left feeling "sort of fucking sick."

Regina reported the incident to CalArts five weeks later. Over the course of the college's nearly two-month investigation, Regina said school officials never asked her whether her alleged rapist had been abusive before. She never told them that during their short-lived physical relationship, he often aggressively pressured her into sex, prompting her more than once to physically push him off.

Instead, she said school administrators asked her questions about her drinking habits, how often she partied, the length of her dress, how oral rape was even possible, whether she climaxed and whether climaxing was an issue when she'd been with her alleged rapist before.

Two days after her report, the accused student was removed from Regina's classes and banned from school social events. But CalArts was unable to stop him from violating these conditions several times or his friends from cursing out her and her friends. As a result, Regina said she fell into a depression, suffered insomnia, had multiple nervous breakdowns and couldn't keep up with her work.

Regina said school administrators asked her questions about her drinking habits, how often she partied, the length of her dress, how oral rape was even possible, whether she climaxed and whether climaxing was an issue when she'd been with her alleged rapist before.

Then, on May 8, CalArts found the young man responsible for sexual assault and suspended him for a year. Suspensions are the fate of 47 percent of students found responsible for sexual assault at college, according to an analysis by The Huffington Post. In this case, the student was also allowed to finish out the semester's remaining nine days.

Fearful of her alleged rapist returning, especially since he had a history of violating the school's conditions, Regina appealed CalArts' sanction.

In June, the school upheld its decision. So, Regina turned to the federal government, filing a complaint against CalArts with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. On Sept. 30, CalArts became one of at least 80 colleges and universities under federal investigation for how it handles sexual violence.

The Title IX civil rights law bans schools that receive federal funding from discriminating on the basis of sex, and that means handling reports of sexual assault in a way that is prompt, equitable and ensures the alleged victim can continue his or her education in an environment without hostility or fear. Regina believes CalArts – her dream school since she was 12 years old – didn't do that.

"I lost my sense of identity," Regina told America Tonight. "I don’t feel comfortable with my body. I don't feel safe in my school."


Although Regina, now a 19-year-old sophomore, said she knew she'd been raped the next day, she didn't go to the hospital and get a rape kit, or press charges or tell her family. She felt guilty, she said, that she'd been so drunk. But after five weeks of panic attacks and pressure from her friends, Regina explained, she decided to finally report it to school officials.

In her multiple interviews with Charmagne M. Shearrill, CalArts' chief human resources officer and Title IX coordinator, and Kim Russo, associate provost of academic affairs, Regina said she was asked questions that were irrelevant and upsetting. Arianna Borgeson, one of Regina's best friends, was also asked questions she saw as inappropriate and victim-blaming, like how much Regina usually drank. 

Regina's teaching assistant said she was asked whether she was aware of the accused student's financial situation – a reference to his family's well-known wealth.

"We assume [an arts school like CalArts] is going to be more progressive than some of these schools like Columbia, that are famous for having bad investigations," said Borgeson. "And it turned out that wasn't true."

Chelsea Tuggle, 22, then a teaching assistant in the film program, said she was asked about the quality of the work of Regina and the accused student.

"They asked whose films I liked better," she said. "… It was like they were trying to see who was more of the star of the class."

A text exchange between Regina and Associate Provost Kim Russo. Regina says this April message was the first time she was advised to use campus security as a resource.

CalArts did not respond to repeated requests for comment. And student privacy laws prevent schools from remarking on the specifics of disciplinary cases. It's difficult to imagine, however, an appropriate context for another one of the questions Tuggle said she was asked: whether she was aware of the accused student's financial situation – a reference to his family's well-known wealth.

"Like maybe Regina and me have something against rich people?" she said.  

During the investigation, most of the CalArts freshman-year film program had picked sides. Tuggle said many of the male students in her class would bully Regina, engaging in big debates about rape – its evolutionary origins or alcohol and consent – clearly directed at her.

"It was like a bunch of animals yelling at each other," said Tuggle.  

The accused student also violated his no-contact order several times, according to multiple witnesses. At one party, Regina said he stood nearby smiling at her menacingly, making her feel so uncomfortable that she left. And in another incident, he showed up to class, so Regina had to frantically ask the professor to remove him.

There's no mention of these incidents in the final decision document, obtained by America Tonight.

"Those should have resulted in additional charges and it's a reason to enhance the sanction," said Brett Sokolow, the president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, who's advised colleges on their sexual assault policies for more than 15 years. "Abusers tend to violate no-contact orders."


A Facebook post written by one of the accused student's friends, screenshoted by Regina and sent to a school official.

Regina said she lost trust in the school's willingness to ensure her safety, especially when the accused's friends lashed out even harder after the suspension was announced. In one incident, acknowledged by administrators in a text exchange, a classmate came up to Regina, screamed "Fuck you" and flipped her off. And in a Facebook post, captured in a screenshot pictured here, another classmate wrote: "People tried to take us down, a homie was betrayed, our class divided… So we'll rise about and shit on all of u. U know who you are."

Under federal law, schools must protect students who report sexual assault from retaliation. One of the accused's friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said administrators spoke to him and the others after these incidents, but said they were told that they didn't violate the school's retaliation policy. School officials warned them that there would be penalties if they did.

When Regina reported the incidents to administrators, said she was scared and called it retaliation, she said Shearrill, the chief human resources officer, denied that it was. As a solution, Shearrill advised Regina to simply ask her friends to stop sending her Facebook posts that made her uncomfortable.

A Facebook post by Regina the day CalArts announced the suspension.

On the other hand, the accused's friend said administrators told him that a Facebook post of Regina's, pictured left, could qualify as retaliation, and that he should promptly report things like that to school officials. When the suspension was announced, she published a post with lyrics by The Smiths: "And he said that he'd never, never do it again/And of course he won't/Not until the next time."

"It's subtle but it hurts us," said the friend about the Facebook post. He believes his classmate was falsely accused.

The accused student declined a request for comment.

Regina said she was also treated unequally in the appeals process. When the decision was handed down, she said she was given no details on how to appeal. When then Dean of Student Affairs Renee Barnett-Terry met with her about it, she said the administrator accidentally handed her the accused student's decision letter, which had ample information about appealing.

CalArts President Steven D. Lavine rejected Regina's appeal.

Last week, the school sent a campus-wide email about its amped-up sexual assault policies and resources. These included new training during freshman orientation, the adoption of an "affirmative consent" standard and an expanded non-retaliation policy.

The email did not mention the federal investigation into the school. Rather, it spoke of the issue in general terms, saying: "As artists and culture makers, it is important for all of us to actively create and sustain a culture at CalArts that is consistent with our community values…"

Regina, however, is still afraid about her alleged rapist's possible return to campus next fall. And the dress from that night eight months ago is still sitting in that paper bag.

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Where to turn for help

If you have been the victim of a sexual assault or are a friend of a victim, live support is available at 800-565-HOPE (4673) or online here.

For more on campus safety and sexual assault prevention and help, visit our resources page.


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