UC Berkeley students have provoked policy reforms and sparked a federal investigation into their university’s handling of sexual assault cases on campus — and they’re still pressing for further change.
They’re part of a growing movement of students at universities across the country, and they’re getting support from Congress and the White House to change discipline practices that they say gloss over allegations, re-traumatize victims and heavily favor the rights of the accused.
“I think that Cal’s been responding to sexual assault and to sexual assault survivors in a very deliberately indifferent way, honestly, for decades,” says Diva Kass, one of 31 current and former Cal students who filed a federal complaint against the school in February.
The movement began about a year and a half ago with well-publicized cases at Yale University and Amherst College. Then women who’d experienced similar traumas at other universities started connecting with each other on social media, teaching each other how to file complaints under the federal Title IX law.
And the chorus of complaints spread to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Harvard College, Occidental College, the University of Southern California and more — so many that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is now investigating more than 50 schools across the country. As of last month, that includes UC Berkeley.
Kass’s story echoes many of those told by students at other schools. She grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from Cal in 2009. She says when she was a junior, a fellow student drugged and raped her in his fraternity bedroom.
“I only remember about 30 seconds or so of the actual assault,” she recalls. “I remember pushing the guy off of me and saying no and him not stopping, and then my memory of the night goes blank.”
Kass is now a law student at the University of Notre Dame. In her written testimony to the Department of Education, she says her experience with UC Berkeley went like this:
She struggled with fear and anxiety during the five months it took the university to hold a hearing about her claims. A university officer told Kass she couldn’t bring a lawyer or witnesses to the hearing, but when she got there, her alleged attacker had both. After she told her story, her alleged assailant got to directly interrogate her. When it was his turn to tell his side of the story, she had to leave the room.
“This person … completely took away my voice and violated my body,” says Kass. “And by allowing him to then question me about it and sort of set it up in a way where he had the control and the power of the situation again. … It was humiliating, and it was really a second trauma.”
The university found Kass’s alleged assailant not responsible for sexual assault. A university official told Kass that the accused could appeal the decision if he wanted, but she could not. Within a week, she was hospitalized for anxiety. His fraternity, she says, threw him a party.
“These stories are heartbreaking, and it just is very hard to hear that anybody on our campus would have had to endure such a difficult situation,” says Claire Holmes, an associate vice chancellor and UC Berkeley spokeswoman.
She points out that Cal has recently made significant changes to its sexual assault policy and hired a survivor advocate to help victims through the process — though student activists still want them to go further.
Under the reforms, both parties in a sexual assault case now can bring a lawyer and witnesses and can appeal a judicial decision, and officials must try to resolve cases within 60 days. Accused students can still directly question their accusers, as in Diva Kass’s case — although federal guidelines explicitly discourage this practice. Cal says it will try to accommodate students who don’t feel comfortable being in the same room with their alleged attackers.
Besides the trauma for individuals like Diva Kass, advocates argue there’s a bigger issue of campus safety: If the judicial process is unsympathetic and ineffective, survivors won’t want to go through it. Sexual assaults will go unreported, and assailants will return to their dorm rooms.
That’s part of what motivated Michele Dauber, a Stanford University law professor, to help lead a transformation of her school’s policies in 2010.
“If you have so many reported cases and so few findings of responsibility and disciplinary punishments, then you have an unchecked situation potentially of sexual assault on campus,” Dauber says. “You can’t guarantee the safety of your students.”
Nationally, researchers estimate that one in five college women suffers an actual or attempted sexual assault during her undergraduate years. The risk is especially high for freshmen and sophomores. And the vast majority of those assaults go unreported.
Reports appear to be low at Cal, too. The university was seeing only about six reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault annually until 2012, when the number jumped to 12. Last year it rose again to 16. But still, on a campus of 35,000 students, those numbers are small.
By most accounts, sexual assault has gone on mostly silently at universities for decades — until a pivotal moment came in 2011. The U.S. Department of Education issued a letter clarifying that Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination and sexual harassment on college campuses, should also be understood to cover sexual assault. It made plain that universities that don’t act to stop such violence are breaking the law.
“That letter really spurred some people to action,” Dauber says. “Some students who maybe felt that this was wrong but didn’t know that they had rights, and that told them that they did have rights.”
Now, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is investigating more than 50 schools — and the list includes Harvard, Amherst, Occidental College and the University of Southern California.
There’s a reason why university policies have leaned so heavily toward the rights of the accused. It stems from cases in the 1960s when some universities expelled students for participating in civil rights protests, often without giving them any due process. The students sued, and the courts ordered schools to give accused students ample opportunity to defend themselves. That practice stuck.
“If you look at that period from 1960 until almost the present day, the legal pressures that have been placed on institutions … have been almost exclusively from the perspective of the rights of accused students,” says John Wesley Lowery. He’s a professor of student affairs in higher education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and he’s studied student conduct systems across the country.
“Only in recent years have we seen the federal government, and to a much lesser degree the courts, say ‘We think there needs to be a balance here,’ ” Lowery explains.
Still, advocates for the defense caution that in trying to address survivors’ concerns, universities shouldn’t swing too far and abandon the accused students’ rights instead. Autumn Paine is an Oakland lawyer who has represented Cal students accused of sexual assault in criminal court, which is separate from the university judicial process.
“The person who’s being accused faces pretty significant consequences. This could ruin their academic career, this could end job prospects,” she says. “We want to make sure that that person has every opportunity to defend themselves.”
Paine says the reforms Cal has made so far sound reasonable.
But Sofie Karasek says they don’t go far enough.
She’s a junior at Cal and one of the organizers of the complainants. She says she reported being assaulted — not raped — by another student in 2012. But the university resolved the matter privately with him, without conducting a formal investigation and without telling her what was going on.
Karasek wants Cal to provide a guaranteed right to a formal investigation, if the alleged victim wants one. And despite the reforms, she still perceives her university’s attitude toward sexual assault like this: “Don’t get raped. And if you do get raped, we’re not going to help you in any way. You’re on your own.”
UC Berkeley’s Claire Holmes says that pains her to hear. “I certainly hope we can do a better job,” she says. “We’re constantly reviewing and updating our policies. We want to work in coordination with our students, and I applaud these women who are incredibly brave who are trying to raise national attention to this important topic.”
Karasek and other Cal students recently met with California Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), who plans to introduce a bill this month to strengthen federal enforcement.
They’re part of a growing national network of students who connecting with each other on social media, teaching each other how to file federal complaints — and even craft media strategies. And they’re not stopping until they see that universities not only change their policies on paper, but also follow through.
Colleges and universities currently under Title IX investigation by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights for their handling of sexual harassment and assault:
- Arizona State University
- Butte-Glen Community College District
- Occidental College
- University of California-Berkeley
- University of Southern California
- Regis University
- University of Colorado at Boulder
- University of Colorado at Denver
- University of Denver
- University of Connecticut
- Catholic University of America
- Florida State University
- Emory University
- University of Hawaii at Manoa
- University of Idaho
- Knox College
- University of Chicago
- Indiana University-Bloomington
- Vincennes University
- Boston University
- Emerson College
- Harvard College
- Harvard Law
- Amherst College
- University of Massachusetts-Amherst
- Frostburg State University
- Michigan State University
- University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
- Guilford College
- University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
- Minot State University
- Dartmouth College
- Princeton University
- City University of New York – Hunter College
- Hobart & William Smith Colleges
- Sarah Lawrence College
- State University of New York at Binghamton
- Denison University
- Ohio State University
- Wittenberg University
- Oklahoma State University
- Carnegie Mellon University
- Franklin & Marshall College
- Pennsylvania State University
- Swarthmore College
- Temple University
- Vanderbilt University
- Southern Methodist University
- University of Texas-Pan American
- College of William & Mary
- University of Virginia
- Washington State University
- University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
- Bethany College
- West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine