Schools Revise Sexual Assault Policies

by Cassie Paton

Instead of working on her thesis, UC Berkeley senior Shannon Thomas is spending much of her time attending student conduct meetings, planning for press conferences and talking to reporters. That’s because she has been outspoken about how she says her school mishandled her case against a fellow classmate who allegedly sexually harassed her in class.

“It’s been stressful,” Thomas says. “But I wanted to do anything in my power to bring these issues to light and make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.”

Thomas is one of 31 current and former Berkeley students who say their sexual assault investigations were mishandled and who filed federal complaints against the school, which has since changed its policies in compliance with the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

Because of all the stress lately, Thomas has had a hard time sleeping and recently began therapy sessions to help cope with her experiences of not only being harassed and threatened by her classmate this semester, but also sexually assaulted during a visit to UCLA last summer. Her professors and a university dean have been understanding. But that, she says, is where support from the school ends.

In a press release posted Friday from the UC system announcing the policy changes, President Janet Napolitano said the school has “no tolerance for sexual violence or harassment of any kind.” The changes to the policy include expanded education and training and broader definitions of sexual misconduct to help better protect survivors.

Berkeley isn’t the only school making changes to how sexual misconduct cases are being handled. Occidental College, USC and UCLA have all been under fire lately for either underreporting numbers, botching investigations or being lenient in how they discipline offenders.

Occidental College is under federal investigation by the Department of Education for complaints from students and faculty saying the school mishandled investigations, discouraged survivors from reporting assaults and failed to report accurate numbers to the government, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Occidental has recently taken actions to address the issue, namely by hiring both a full-time survivor advocate and a Title IX coordinator. All students are now required to complete training courses in sexual misconduct before registering for classes each fall semester.

The school’s communications director Jim Tranquada says Occidental conducted an independent audit of its reporting process to correct mistakes made in previous reports, which must be submitted annually under the Clery Act. Schools’ numbers for 2013 must be posted no later than Oct. 1, 2014, and Tranquada says the number of reports at Occidental’s are expected to increase.

“Counterintuitively, we see those increases in reports as a positive development given that sexual misconduct is an underreported crime,” Tranquada says. “We see these numbers as an indication that survivors feel more comfortable coming forward, and that’s a good thing.”

The college also hired Gina Maisto Smith, a partner at Pepper Hamilton LLP and former sex crimes prosecutor, to make recommendations in policy changes. Along with colleague Leslie Gomez, Smith is also conducting an independent review of Occidental’s handling of sexual misconduct cases.

Smith — a long-time expert in domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault — says one of the most important ways any school can help serve the needs of survivors is by employing a full-time advocate who can be a 24/7 guide and resource for confidential support for those who need it.

"Using a confidential advocate can enable a student to receive focused attention and emotional support," Smith says. "Institutions that have chosen to implement confidential advocates reflect an understanding of the importance of separating support options from reporting options."

She says students need that resource to feel like they’re safe and have access to someone who can inform them of what steps, if they choose, they can take.

Schools have also bolstered on-campus education and advocacy groups like Occidental’s Project SAFE, which has doubled its staff of students and reportedly provided training and education to Greek organizations and other student leaders. Know Your IX is another resource for students nationwide geared toward helping them understand their basic legal rights when it comes to sexual assault and harassment.

Tranquada says the paradigm shift in opening up dialogues and increasing awareness of these issues is the result of activism by students in campuses across the country.

“There’s a national movement that’s been extremely effective on campuses at moving this issue to the top of the agenda, and that’s a good thing,” Tranquada says.

UC Berkeley students (above) speak out

UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks wrote a letter to the campus community addressing the issues at hand, beginning by saying he wants his message to make a “clear, unequivocal statement.” Dirks elaborates: “Sexual assault has no place on a college campus or anywhere in civilized society.”

Like Occidental, Berkeley has hired a confidential survivor advocate and promises to dedicate more resources to supporting survivors of sexual assault. And a new interim sexual misconduct policy has been established to allow survivors to appeal decisions made in sexual misconduct cases.

Alexa Schwartz is a senior theater major at USC and one of the 16 students who filed a Title IX complaint against the school last May for allegedly mishandling their cases. Schwartz says she and her fellow students received help from several Occidental College professors who had filed their own complaints.

As for the policy changes schools are making in light of these issues, Schwartz says it’s a good first step.

“We need people who care about this and who are going to stick around,” Schwartz says. “Which is why we need administrators who aren’t motivated by sweeping these things under the rug, but who are really in it for the long haul.”

In the meantime, survivors like Shannon Thomas and the dozens of other students at Berkeley, Occidental and other schools are determined to keep administrators and offenders accountable by keeping the issue in the media, which Thomas hopes other survivors will benefit from.

“I’ve been open about talking about it because it’s not something I should be ashamed of — it’s something society should be ashamed of,” Thomas says. “The fact that you’re more likely to get raped if you go to college than if you don’t is a serious issue.”

Thomas says having her name and face be associated with such an important issue helps people take notice.

“I want them to notice,” she says. “I want them to listen up and be as angry as I am. I don’t want this to happen to a single other person on campus.”