A group of 31 students and alumni — ranging from the class of 1975 to the class of 2016 —have filed a federal complaint against UC Berkeley, alleging that the school handled their reports of sexual assault and harassment with "deliberate indifference."
Last week, the coalition of assault survivors announced that they would be filing Title IX and Clery complaints against the university with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Clery Compliance Division (CCD). According to their petition to the OCR, the sexual assault procedures at UC Berkeley propagate and permit a hostile environment for female students by "discourag[ing] victims from reporting sexual assaults, favor[ing] assailants in the adjudication process and revictimiz[ing] survivors."
This isn't the first time that UC Berkeley has been the subject of a federal complaint — last May, nine students filed one with the OCR under the Clery Act. Sofie Karasek, a junior, was one of them. She alleges that she was sexually assaulted during her freshman year by a member of a student organization she'd joined; she later discovered that three other female students — all of them in the same organization — had been assaulted by the same man. According to Karasek, at least three of them filed a formal complaint with the University's Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination and the Center for Student Conduct — they originally thought that meeting with OPHD representatives qualified as reporting, and the reps never told them that a written statement was required for a report. Another of the assault survivors also went to Berkeley's Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq) and tried to have the assailant removed from the organization; there, she was told the that she 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." According to this logic, it's the duty of an assault victim to make sure that the perpetrator has someone to talk him through it when he does it again — which he will, because he's a repeat offender.
The three never received any updates about their case, and their assailant was eventually allowed to graduate early. Karasek later found out that he was only found in violation of the university's Code of Student Conduct and punished with probation (which is, essentially, a meaningless slap on the wrist) and mandatory counseling. So Sofie filed a Clery Act complaint. Now, eight months later, it has yet to be investigated, and a stream of misguided, nonsensical, and patently contradictory rhetoric continues to emit from the mouths of the UC Berkeley administration, whose indifference and incompetence has put Berkeley students in danger for years. Just how contradictory is it? Let's have a look at some of the most egregious low points:
"Pressing Charges Can Be a Long, Painful Process"
The university actively insists that it does nothing to discourage survivors, but language in its own sexual assault resources and statements made by its own employees directly contradict that. One claimant, sophomore Meghan Warner, told the Huffington Post that she was "shocked and hurt" to find that most of the university resources online were aimed at the perpetrator, "including an infographic for what to do if you're accused, not what to do if you are a survivor seeking help." The link to the school's Campus Student Policy and Procedures Regarding Sexual Assault and Rape, which is listed on the website for the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), no longer works. And currently, the GenEq website has this advice for victims of assault:
Consider whether you want to file charges with the police and/or with the campus authorities if your alleged assailant is a student. Pressing charges can be a long, painful process. Each person must decide for themselves, based on their own circumstances, whether it makes sense to go through it. Social Service staff are available to help you consider the pros and cons for filing charges.
Another complainant, Aryle Butler, had a terrible experience attempting to work with GenEq. She didn't want to report her assailant, but the police somehow found out about her assault and accosted her in her dormitory. "A friend of mine was raped shortly after I was assaulted twice, and the police came to my door at 2am on a Sunday night, yelling my name, and waking up my floor," she told me in an email. "He then said in the hallway, quite loudly 'I need to talk to you about [your friend's] rape' ... He didn't inform me of my rights, did not identify himself and wouldn't tell me who told him about my friend's assault." She attempted to report the officer to GenEq — being rightfully alarmed and deeply uncomfortable that an armed man was allowed to come onto campus and harass her — but she was told by a staff member that the proceedings "would be too invasive" and was thus "encouraged not to." Later, she says, she went through "a different even worse process trying to get them to do something about my assault."
"Berkeley Does Not Use An Early Resolution for Sexual Assault Cases"
Denise Oldham, Berkeley's Title IX coordinator, insisted to the LA Times that the school does not use an Early Resolution for cases of sexual assault. Early Resolution, as defined on the OPHD website, "may include an inquiry into the facts, but typically does not include a formal investigation" and occurs "when the parties desire to resolve the situation cooperatively and/or when a Formal Investigation is not likely to lead to a satisfactory outcome."
"I can't imagine a situation where that would be appropriate," she told a reporter when asked about whether the process was ever applied to sexual assault cases. However, this directly contradicts language in an email she sent to Sofie Karasek regarding the status of her assault case: "This matter has been explored and resolved using an early resolution process." It also contradicts what she said to Anais LaVoie, a co-complainant on the suit who claims that Oldman told her Karasek's case had been resolved without a hearing "through an early resolution process."
In another email obtained by Jezebel — addressed to Nicoletta Commins, a sexual violence survivor who had reported her assault to the Center for Student Conduct a year and a half prior — Center for Student Conduct employee Erin Nieblyski also refers to an "informal process." You know, the kind of thing Denise Oldman can't imagine being appropriate in a case of assault.
Here's an excerpt from the email, which was sent on July 15, 2013:
Please note that your case was resolved through our informal process on March 5, 2013 with the following outcome:
[Name redacted] was found responsible for the following policy: 102.08 - Physical Abuse – Physical abuse including but not limited to rape, sexual assault, sex offenses, and other physical assault; threats of violence; or other conduct that threatens the health or safety of any person.
Additionally, the sanctions that were assigned as a result of this case are as follows:
- Suspension through August 31, 2015
- Exclusion from campus and official university functions through August 31, 2015
- Disciplinary probation for remainder of studies after August 31, 2015
- No contact with Nicoletta Commins
- Reflective writing assignment due August 31, 2013.
Commins was not asked for input (so much for "resolving the situation cooperatively"), nor was she ever updated on the status of the case. In December, she told the Daily Californian, "It was bad when he was still on campus… I was scared to go to class every day. I was constantly afraid I would run into him." Her assailant remained on campus for a few months after the assault, until the district attorney asked that he be removed indefinitely (she had also reported her assault to the police). The assailant and the DA later reached a settlement that mandated that he stay away from campus — so the only punishment he received from Berkeley, essentially, was probation and a little writing assignment. If the assailant so desires, he can return to Berkeley in 2015 and finish his degree. Oldman is right: there is absolutely nothing "appropriate" about that level of ineptitude and indifference.
And it doesn't really seem that things have changed much, even though an interim sexual assault policy has been instituted. Tellingly, the LinkedIn page of Will Mallari, the new Title IX coordinator hired by Berkeley over the summer, lists "seek early resolutions" as part of his job description — before "conduct formal investigations when appropriate."
In an email to Sofie Karasek, Denise Oldham insisted that the "early" in Early Resolution (which the University administration purports to use only in cases of sexual harassment) "is not a synonym for 'quick' or 'simplified.' These strategies often involve an inquiry into the facts, gathering information from all parties..." Despite Oldham's protests, it's hard not to interpret the Early Resolution process as a frenzied attempt to sweep rape under the rug. Certainly, in Nicoletta's case, there was no effort made to gather information for all parties: she didn't even know that a hearing had been held until after the fact.
"Our Process Is Educationally Focused"
Hallie Hunt, the new director at the Center for Student Conduct, told the Oakland Tribune that the university's resolution process is "educationally focused." By this, she probably means that rapists are sometimes asked to write essays about why sexual assault is bad after they're found in violation of campus policy and given a little wrist-slap. She probably does not mean that the resolution process focuses on ensuring that sexual assault survivors feel safe and secure while focusing on their own education. If that were the case, the Center for Student Conduct would have to keep assault survivors updated on the status of their cases and dole out actual punishments to rapists.
In an email to the Huffington Post, UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore offered up a lame excuse for the ineffective sexual assault resolution process: "Our aim is to conclude cases as quickly as possible but individual cases can vary based on issues such as the number of individuals involved, complexity of the case, availability of witnesses (who may be out of the country), and other issues." OH, okay. That makes perfect sense. If the witnesses are out of the country — presumably studying abroad, hooray for a focus on education! — then it's impossible to follow through. They don't have email or phone services anywhere outside of continental America, as everyone knows.
Seriously, though: if Berkeley is so dedicated to resolving cases expediently and promoting education, why wasn't Nicoletta informed of the outcome of her assailant's informal hearing for five months? Why do students have to heckle the Center for Student Conduct for updates? It's impossible to argue that a sexual assault case is "concluded" when the victim still feels unsafe and uncomfortable on campus.
"It Wouldn't Serve Our Office to Discourage Someone From Reporting"
According to Anais LaVoie's complaint, Denise Oldham gave her misleading information about the amount of students seeking formal resolutions for cases of sexual assault. "We see over 500 cases every year," Oldham reportedly told her, "but were only able to seek formal disciplinary resolutions in two cases the previous year." Oldham allegedly gave the same statistic to another student. On the far other end of the spectrum, Janet Gilmore told Al Jazeera last week that there have been fewer than 10 rape cases reported to the Center for Student Conduct since 2008. So which is it? How many students have reported being sexually assaulted — 500 a year, or under 10 since 2008?
According to official University data: "In 2013, 14 cases of student on student sexual misconduct cases were reported to CSC. Of those 14 cases, 9 resulted in a finding of responsibility and 4 are pending resolution. We did not hold a formal hearing for sexual misconduct in 2013."
When asked about the erroneous information she supplied to LaVoie, Oldham flat-out denied doing so: "I didn't say it," she told the LA Times, adding, "That certainly sounds discouraging to me. It certainly wouldn't serve our office to discourage someone from reporting." Well, I guess she's right on one count, at least. It certainly doesn't serve UC Berkeley to silence, marginalize and overlook survivors of sexual assault on campus, and it's completely unacceptable for administrators charged with preventing and responding to sexual assault to present a flimsy facade of campus safety to the student body — especially because doing so endangers and disempowers students. How many federal suits will UC Berkeley have to face before it recognizes this?
[This post was updated to clarify details in Commins' and Butler's accounts.]
Image via Getty.