Sexual assault survivors seek reform at the University of California

At UC Berkeley, 31 women filed a federal complaint alleging mishandling of sexual violence investigations.

University of California Berkeley graduate Nicoletta Commins was 20 when she was sexually assaulted, in early 2012. She’d been taking a Taekwondo class, and said her teammate assaulted her when they were in her apartment.

He was “just an acquaintance,” she said in a phone interview. “We were sort of flirty, but not close friends.”

Following the incident, she had a pervasive sense of fear. “He was on campus for a month or a little more, after this happened. I was really depressed. They let me take a reduced workload, but it was hard to keep up with school,” she said. “I took windy ways to school to avoid him. I saw him on campus and it was a terrifying experience. There was one time I saw him walking by, and I hid behind a car.”

Adding to that stress was the difficulty Commins says she encountered after formally reporting the assault and awaiting a response from campus officials.

Late last month, 31 women who currently or formerly attended UC Berkeley filed formal complaints with the federal Department of Education, alleging that the university had mishandled sexual assault investigations through repeated failure to adequately address reports of these incidents.

Universities are bound to comply with Title IX, a federal civil rights law that requires postsecondary institutions to take measures to protect sexual assault victims. They must also adhere to the Clery Act, which requires reporting of crime statistics and for security policies to be in accordance with federal guidelines.

In their complaint, sexual assault survivors charged that UC Berkeley had violated their rights under Title IX and the Clery Act by failing to meet the complaints with adequate investigation and response. This was the second formal complaint to be lodged along these lines: Last May, nine women who had attended UC Berkeley came forward with an Office of Civil Rights complaint charging the same. This most recent filing was an updated complaint with accounts from more survivors.

After the sexual violence she experienced, Commons said she immediately sought medical care and reported what had happened. Initially, campus staff was responsive, she said. She met with a representative from the Office of Student Conduct, followed by a meeting with a campus coordinator tasked with Title IX compliance.

“People reached out to me. People told me their burden of evidence is lower at the school than the court,” she recounted. “They said people will see disciplinary action in the school that they won’t see from law enforcement.”

But time went on, and she heard nothing. “No one would tell me anything or respond to emails. All of a sudden everyone left me in the dark. They told me there’d be a hearing to participate in. Then nothing. For months.”

Getting nowhere through campus channels, she decided to go to the police, prompting the Alameda County District Attorney to become involved in her case.

After a year and a half had gone by, a settlement was finally reached. “Part of it included him not coming back to school for a few years before I left the campus,” she explained. “He had to get counseling. He was excluded from school functions, and [was barred] from contacting me.”

But she believes UC’s hand was forced by her decision to involve law enforcement. “If I had not reported to the police and the DA had not come to agreement with the lawyers, [the settlement] would not have happened,” she said. “It was an agreement between the DA’s office and the school.”

Following the initial OCR complaint last May, the California Legislature ordered the State Auditor to conduct an audit of UC Berkeley and three other universities, to assess outcomes of sexual violence complaints on a broad scale and to investigate whether the universities’ policies are in compliance with federal guidelines.

“Sexual violence is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about, particularly in an educational environment,” Assemblymember Anthony Rendon wrote in a letter calling for the audit.

“I am particularly concerned with the recent allegations made by the nine women from UC Berkeley stating that their cases were simply not taken seriously by campus officials and not reported properly. Campus officials discouraged them from reporting their cases to police and did not provide these victims with adequate support services … These women are broken down physically and emotionally. The lack of support they received from the officials on campus is attributable to this.”

Margarita Fernández, spokesperson for the State Auditor, said the audit was a work in progress and that findings could be released in June.

“The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights received a complaint that alleges discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual violence, race and disability at the University of California-Berkeley," a spokesperson from that agency wrote in a statement to the Bay Guardian. "The Department is evaluating the complaint allegations to determine whether they are appropriate for a civil rights investigation.”

In the interim, the UC system has taken some steps in the wake of the federal complaints. According to a March 7 announcement, the school released a new policy against sexual violence and harassment that provides for expanded training and education, increased reporting requirements, and broader protections for victims, according to a recent announcement from the office of UC President Janet Napolitano.

UC Berkeley has also issued a formal response, with Chancellor Nicholas Dirks issuing a Feb. 25 letter to announce efforts to streamline campus policies around responding to sexual violence.

Addressing the sexual assault victims who came forward, Dirks said, “I have been deeply moved by your courage and conviction, and offer my full support for your efforts.”   

We sought to contact representatives from the campus’ Gender Equity Resource center, which provides assistance to sexual assault victims, but received a statement from campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore instead.

“We are committed to taking a close look at what we can do to better serve students and incorporate their concerns as we seek to address these issues,” Gilmore wrote. “That process remains underway.”

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