By Nina Thorsen, Mina Kim and The Associated Press
Federal officials are investigating how UC Berkeley responds to reports of campus sexual assaults. The investigation began after dozens of UC Berkeley students and alumni filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in February, alleging the university mishandled campus disciplinary cases involving sexual violence.
Berkeley isn’t the only university in the spotlight right now for mishandling sexual assault cases. Just a few cases in the news include the probe into Florida State‘s lack of investigation in the sexual assault of a freshman, while Vanderbilt and Amherst are also being sued for mishandling student complaints.
One in every five women will be sexually assaulted while in college, but less than 5 percent will report the assault to law enforcement, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Several national efforts are in the works to address the issue.
Recommendations from the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault are expected to go public next week, and Bay Area Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA-14) plans to introduce federal legislation to strengthen laws to combat sexual assault on students.
“Many of the problems that exist, exist because (academic institutions) are closed systems, they have their own internal law enforcement, and for the most part, these cases historically have been swept under the rug,” Speier said. “Some of these institutions don’t have rape kits on campus. If you’re raped on a college campus, you might have to travel 10 or 15 miles to get to a facility that has a rape kit. That’s unacceptable.”
In an appearance at UC Berkeley last week, Speier said universities have to be accountable for interviewing any student who files a complaint of sexual misconduct.
Speier told KQED that she wants to increase funding for federal investigations, campus surveys and to create more comprehensive data on the outcomes of cases. She also wants to make it mandatory for universities to interview students who file complaints.
“Most of these cases, when they come to the attention of the Department of Education, end up in confidential resolutions that the public is not aware of, and I don’t think that is helpful in terms of families who are contemplating sending their children to universities and want to be confident in knowing they’re safe,” Speier said.
As part of her campaign, Speier is pushing U.S. News and World Report to include information about campus response to sexual violence in its popular annual rankings of colleges.
Speier said federal action in this area is both appropriate and potentially very effective. “Federal funds can be withheld from any institution of higher learning that does not comply with the nondiscrimination protections of Title IX,” she said. “That means Pell Grants, student loans, R&D research monies. It’s a big hammer, and it’s often taken seriously when a review is undertaken by the Department of Education.”
Attempts at some institutions to put the responsibility for preventing sexual assault on potential victims was also unacceptable, she added.
“That’s a trap that people fall into, that somehow in order to protect oneself, you’re supposed to wear sneakers – that was one of the recommendations from an administrator at a university; wear sneakers, so you can run away faster. You shouldn’t have to walk on a college campus in fear of being sexually assaulted.”