Sexual assault complaints fall on deaf ears at UC Berkeley, according to 31 current and formers students who filed two federal complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Wednesday.
But apparently, that's neither new or unusual. The current charges -- which allege that Cal administrators failed to investigate serial rapists and acted indifferent to harassment reports -- are just the latest in a spate of Title IX grievances filed at campuses nationwide. The 1972 law compels all federally funded institutions to investigate claims of gender-related violence or harassment, an obligation that many schools fail to fulfill.
In fact, the new UC Berkeley filing follows a similar complaint that Cal students filed last year, in conjunction with their peers at two other state campuses. In August, 20-year-old Sofie Karasek -- who is named in the current complaint -- testified before a state Senate committee, alleging that her assailant received lax penalties after admitting to the crime. She and other assault victims say the penalty for rape at UC Berkeley is no more severe than that for cheating on an exam.
In August, legislators ordered an audit of UC Berkeley and other California campuses, examining their process for adjudicating sexual assaults and determining whether students are discouraged or intimidated from reporting them. But the wheels of justice are moving too slow for Karasek and other students. In a July article for the Huffington Post, Karasek described the brittle response she received from Cal administrators, 7 months after reporting her assault in April of 2012.
"I finally received two three-sentence emails telling me that my case had 'been resolved through an early resolution process' and that he had been found in violation of the student Code of Conduct, without specifying if any disciplinary action had been taken against him," she wrote. "Two weeks later, he graduated."
Karasek's is only one in a litany of testimonials about accused rapists and tormenters who were never prosecuted, or who got off with just a warning. According to Tracey Vitchers, spokeswoman for the national anti-rape organization Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), universities such as Berkeley often subject assault victims to unnecessary legal rigamarole because they either don't understand the campus' Title IX obligations, or don't have a clear protocol for handling rape cases.
"There's a gap in administrators' understanding of what they're required to do when a sexual assault is reported," Vitchers explains, adding that some schools have tried to stanch out the problem by changing the victims' class schedule so she won't have to see her assailant, or even encouraging her to switch schools. Although many schools are now dispatching sexual assault task forces to help resolve these complaints, Vitchers says the impetus isn't always clear. "The question," she says, "is whether these task forces are there to help the students, or protect the university."
For its part, UC Berkeley appears to have taken a more bullish anti-rape stance than other institutions, and Chancellor Nicholas Dirks says the school's motives are unequivocal. On Tuesday, Dirks announced plans to update the school's policy on sexual misconduct. Among Dirks' proposed or recently implemented changes are a one-stop website with resources for assault survivors, a new Title IX Compliance Advisory Committee, and additional investigators to help steer these cases through the legal process. University spokeswoman Janet Gilmore says that 10 rape cases have gone through the code of conduct office since 2008, and that all of them resulted in the perpetrator's suspension or dismissal.
Dirks announced his new plans with an impassioned denunciation of assault and gender violence, and a promise to "roll out improvements in a deliberative way." Such sweeping statements seem anathema to the legal culture at UC Berkeley. But after yesterday's media barrage, Dirks and other administrators might have to make good on their words.