State audit sparks hope for sexual assault policy reform

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Libby Rainey/Staff

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Sofie Karasek fought back tears as she stood before California legislators, recounting a tale of sexual assault in her first year at UC Berkeley that left her rattled — and a reporting process that caused her to lose faith in the university’s ability to handle cases of sexual assault.

UC Berkeley student Aryle Butler, meanwhile, was angry. She wanted to know why administrators told her she could do nothing to seek justice after she was sexually assaulted. She demanded that the state take action to force “real change” at the university that she says let her down.

Moved by these stories, state legislators unanimously approved an audit of UC Berkeley on Aug. 21 that will review the university’s handling of sexual violence and cases of sexual assault. The state auditor also will assess one other UC and two CSU campuses.

With the audit’s approval, student activists have found allies in state legislators, who they are hoping can be a vehicle for change on college campuses. The audit addresses a federal complaint filed by nine UC Berkeley students in May claiming that the campus mishandled and underreported cases of sexual assault.

“For almost two years, we’ve been waiting for someone to tell us, ‘yes your experiences matter, and what your school did is actually a serious issue.’ ” said Anais LaVoie, a UC Berkeley graduate who helped file the federal complaint, in an email. “No one on campus had given us that. The audit is validation for us — that someone in power believes our story and cares enough to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Bill Wong, chief of staff for the Assemby member who requested the audit, Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, said it was a “pragmatic and effective” course of action.

“An audit may be the most expeditious way to assess if the schools are able to handle this issue,” Wong said.

Assault

Wong said that while a state audit of the University of California is not common, it is not unusual for the state auditor — a nonpartisan office that reviews California institutions for compliance with state law — to make such a move. The state auditor sees a large variety of requests and this year assessed the California Department of Mental Health and the Secretary of State’s office as part of its many audits, according to its website.

State Auditor Elaine Howle said her office will begin the review by November. It will take up to seven months to complete.

The UC Berkeley students join activists from Occidental College, USC and other universities, who are coming forward to demand change in the way their schools handle cases of sexual assault. Annie Clark, an activist who filed a complaint against UNC Chapel Hill in January, helped advise Karasek and the other students who spoke out against UC Berkeley in the spring.

After Clark and other UNC students filed their complaint, students across the nation began reaching out to Clark for help pursuing their own cases. Karasek was one of them.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if another state follows suit,” Clark said. “We’re reaching a broader audience, not necessarily preaching to the choir anymore.”

Clark said she hopes the audit will continue the “ripple effect” that has connected student activists from across the country.

Karasek left the room crowded with legislators to join friends and fellow activists gathered in the hallway to celebrate the committee’s decision to audit UC Berkeley. She hugged Clark. Only a moment passed before they began planning their next move.

“OK, so Berkeley,” Clark said. “Who’s next?”

Libby Rainey covers higher education. Contact her at[email protected].