UC Berkeley’s Handling of Rape Complaints Draws Fire

July 18, 2014

By Mia Shaw at Capitol Weekly

UC Berkeley – under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault complaints and the target of a critical state audit – has a flawed system for dealing with rape allegations and an internal procedure that critics say shields assailants from criminal charges.

The school is one of 55 campuses across the country being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for allegedly mishandling cases of sexual assault. During the 2013-14 academic year, more than five dozen sexual assault complaints were filed at UC Berkeley.

In March, UC President Janet Napolitano announced changes in the policy against sexual violence and harassment, including increased training and education, stricter reporting rules and broader protections for victims.

“The University of California does not tolerate sexual harassment or sexual violence on our campuses,” Napolitano said in a letter to U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, noting that the university system had “programs and processes that are flexible, transparent, responsive, streamlined, and above all, make sure the University of California is a place where all students, faculty, and staff continue to be safe.”

But questions persist about UC Berkeley’s handling of sexual assault complaints.

In June, a state audit give credence to two federal complaints made by 31 UC Berkeley students earlier this year that the university failed to investigate reports of serial rapists, did not adjudicate sexual assault cases in a timely matter, and dismissed rape threats.

Students often report assaults to campus administrators, either in addition to or instead of filing complaints with law enforcement. The audit found that certain employees – including resident advisers and athletic coaches, who may be a victim’s first point of contact – do not receive adequate training on the responding to and reporting incidents.

Additionally, investigations are not conducted quickly enough and, according to students, perpetrators are not sanctioned appropriately.

Sofie Karasek, a senior at UC Berkeley, was assaulted during her freshman year during a trip with a student organization. Her case was referred to the Gender Equity Resource Center at Berkeley, where advisers allegedly recommended that minimal action be taken against her assailant.

“I thought that was pretty bizarre – I didn’t understand why ‘GenEq’ would tell us to leave him in our organization to assault someone else,” said Karasek. “What ended up happening was that he assaulted yet another person. At that point, we reported him to the university.”

Karasek, with three other women, filed formal complaints against the same assailant. For months they received no contact from the university.

In the fall, they were notified that their case had been settled.

“They worked out an agreement with him behind our backs, and didn’t tell us anything or send any emails,” said Karasek. “They decided that his remorse was ‘credible.’ Basically they decided to give him a slap on the wrist.”

Her assailant graduated a semester early, she said.

Out of a total 64 sexual assault complaints, 42 cases resulted in a finding of responsibility for violating the Code of Student Conduct. But only 10 students were either suspended or dismissed for sexual misconduct. The Berkeley campus, the flagship of the UC system, has about 26,000 undergraduates and some 10,000 post-graduate students

According to the audit, more than half of the cases reviewed did not demonstrate that complainants were informed of the outcome of an investigation.

Additionally, the university’s assault educational prevention efforts often go unenforced.

UC Berkeley has established a requirement that all incoming students attend the sexual violence education it provides. However, according to the audit, there was no penalization for those who failed to attend a session.

“Generally, the universities do not educate incoming students near the time they first arrive on campus—students may be at a higher risk of sexual assault in their first weeks there—and two universities do not ensure that these students receive the education,” read the audit.

Only 52 percent of incoming UC Berkeley students attended the mandatory sexual education programs during the 2013-14 academic year.

“Studies observe that the vast majority of sexual assaults occur within that ‘red zone’ of a freshman’s first six weeks on campus,” said Austin Shore, philanthropy chair of UC Berkeley’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. “People whose first time it is being exposed to mind-altering substances do not yet know how to enjoy them responsibly.”

Legislators are now calling for a cultural change on college campuses.

“Twenty percent of young women on a college campus, whether it’s a UC, a Cal State or private independent college, will be sexually assaulted in some form, way or shape,” according to Sen. Kevin de Leon, who has authored legislation to tighten the colleges’ rules for dealing with sexual assault cases. “We need to have a cultural shift across institutions of higher education to take these crimes very seriously.” His bill, SB 967, is pending in the Legislature.

Under SB 967, all California universities receiving state funding would be forced to adopt a controversial “affirmative consent” policy in determining sexual assault cases, effectively requiring campus tribunals to make their decisions based on whether or not explicit consent was given by both students before a sexual activity occurred.

However, some analysts and politicians feel that the universities should not be the first-responders to sexual assault cases, noting that schools are unequipped to deal with dozens of investigations for crimes of such a serious nature.

“SB 967 is a misguided attempt to address a very serious, intolerable crime that permanently impacts the lives of the accused and the accuser, as well as entire families,” said Assemblymember Kristin Olsen, who opposed the bill, in a statement. “Sexual assault cases belong in the hands of law enforcement – not college administrators.”

According to Joseph Cohn, a director at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, many legal protections are missing from the campus adjudication process.

“Unlike courts of law, campus tribunals don’t have a sitting judge who has been trained in law presiding, nor do they have lawyers providing advocacy,” he said. “They don’t use rules of evidence – keeping out hearsay and other forms of unreliable information – and the parties aren’t under oath. Administrators do not have access to forensic evidence or subpoenas.”

Cohn argues that students must go to the police in order to prevent future assaults from occurring.

“Creating an alternate, pseudo-justice system within colleges dissuades students from going to the real authorities – the only people who can keep violent perpetrators off the streets,” said Cohn. “The strictest penalty the university can give is to expel someone. When they do that, though, they lose jurisdiction over the accused person. That person is now free to prey on other people.”

Research shows that more than 90 percent of college rapes are committed by about 3 percent of college men.

“The data suggests that those who commit sexual assaults are repeat offenders. If that’s true, expelling a student and leaving them on the streets doesn’t help anyone,” Cohn said.

But students claim that, for a variety of reasons, the university is often the only place they can turn.

Meghan Warner, one of the 31 Berkeley students filing the federal complaint against the university, insists that it is for a variety of reasons that students don’t feel comfortable going to the police.

“The police do not have a good reputation for dealing with sexual assault,” Warner said in an email. “You must have a specific type of sexual assault – the stranger in a dark alleyway stereotype – for the police to be helpful… If you make it to the court level, you have to be able to prove force was used, through pictures or rape kits, for example. And good luck with getting your rape kit processed, considering the huge backlog in rape kits across the country.”

About 25 percent of cases reviewed by state auditors involved fraternity or sorority members, or occurred at a fraternity or sorority event. A 2007 report from the National Institute of Justice showed that the frequency with which women attended fraternity parties since entering college was positively associated with being a victim of incapacitated sexual assault.

This year, the Wesleyan University student government called on the school administration to force residential fraternities to go coed in the coming academic year or to give up their houses. Dartmouth College Panhellenic Council leaders threatened to boycott recruitment unless the process became more inclusive. As of this summer, Amherst College banned students from joining fraternities; Amherst ended formal college recognition of Greek organizations in 1984.

“Although it is obvious that not all sexual assaults happen in fraternities, there are strong questions raised about fraternity culture and what researchers call ‘proclivity’ to discrimination and violence,” said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University, in a statement. “While the fraternities have made it clear that they wish to be part of the solution, it’s also clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences.”

According to the 2007 report, fraternity men – who drank alcohol more frequently and heavily than non-fraternity members – and were more likely to commit an assault.

“I personally disagree with the term ‘rape culture,’” said Shore. “If I were to talk about the culture of Greeks on campus, it would be much more supportive to one another, rather than aggressive; being in Greek life provides a cohesive attitude.”

However, many students claim their fellow fraternity and sorority members weren’t doing enough, if anything, to support victims in the Greek system.

“Many sorority survivors are afraid to report to the school, fearing their chapter will get in trouble,” said Warner, who co-founded Greeks Against Sexual Assault at UC Berkeley. “Some survivors are explicitly told not to report by members of their chapter’s leadership. Survivors are sometimes criticized, questioned, and belittled by their sorority sisters. Male survivors in the Greek system are also dismissed or told there is no way they were assaulted.”

Berkeley administrators are working quickly to enact improved policies, and have already committed to increasing Resident Assistant (RA) training to twice a year, rather than once each school year; as well as providing more prevention education to new students within the first few weeks of the school year.

“The audit report also acknowledges that our campus police department has acted appropriately when students reported sexual misconduct and it notes that the campus has already taken numerous steps to strengthen its overall efforts,” said Janet Gilmore, UC Berkeley’s Director of Strategic Communications, in an email to Capitol Weekly.“That said, we know there is room for improvement. And we are dedicated to taking the steps necessary to creating a culture of prevention, reporting and accountability.”

Schools: University of California, Berkeley