Seven months ago, UC Berkeley drew national attention for allegedly failing to adequately address cases of sexual assault. Some students claimed the campus mishandled cases and underreported statistics to federal authorities.
The criticism came in the midst of a wave of similar allegations against other institutions of higher education. In schools ranging from Swarthmore College to the University of Southern California, students across the country have stood up this past year and spoken out against alleged injustices via social media campaigns, federal complaints and silent protests.
Spurred by the student complaints, California’s state auditor is examining how UC Berkeley and three other public universities in California handle sexual harassment and sexual violence incidents within their campus communities. The results are scheduled for release in April.
But for many sexual assault survivors campaigning at UC Berkeley and beyond, this year closes on a chapter of frustration and furor. For some, the pace of justice has proven to be sluggish. Still, recent policy changes, although relatively underpublicized, have already begun changing UC Berkeley’s approach to sexual assault procedures. Whether those policies will be effective and whether the audit will spark systemic transformations on campus remain to be seen.
Waiting for the word
It was spring 2012, and Nicoletta Commins, a UC Berkeley junior at the time, was raped in her off-campus apartment by another student.
Reporting Sexual Assault
Sexual assaults can be reported to
the Center for Student Conduct,
Office for the Prevention of
Harassment and Discrimination or
other campus centers.
Commins, not wanting her assailant to assault her or another person again, turned to the police a couple of days after the night of the assault and later the campus Title IX office and Center for Student Conduct to take action against her assailant.
But when she sought help from these offices, which oversee the sexual assault complaint process, she found herself entering a maze of confusion and dead ends.
One year after her case had been reported to the Center for Student Conduct, Commins said, she still had not been informed about the progress of her investigation or whether there were, in fact, an investigation at all.
Reporting Sexual Assault
Eventually, all reports are
directed to the Title IX office,
which can be reached at 510-643-7985.
OPHD will present findings of the
investigation to the student
“I was kept in the dark the entire time,” Commins said. “It was bad when he was still on campus … I was scared to go to class every day. I was constantly afraid I would run into him.”
In July, the conduct office updated Commins on the status of her investigation. According to Commins, the office told her that her case had been decided in the spring through an informal process known as early resolution, during which her assailant and the administration decided on a settlement without input from Commins.
Commins had been expecting at least to have a choice on whether she wanted to participate in an official hearing. But she was never given the option because, as far as she knew, a hearing had never been held.
Reporting Sexual Assault
If formal charges are brought
against the accused, the case
will be resolved through a hearing
or settlement agreement. Either
party can appeal within 10 days of
receiving notice of the hearing’s
For disciplinary action, Commins said, her assailant was given a reflective writing assignment to complete and reached a settlement with the district attorney that suspended him from campus until 2015. If he chooses, however, he can come back in 2015, finish his degree and graduate from UC Berkeley.
“I’m uncomfortable with the fact that he can come back to Berkeley,” Commins said. “It feels unfair to me and other women. How does anybody know that he’s not going to do this again?”
While campus officials cannot comment on specific cases of sexual assault, Hallie Hunt, director of the Center for Student Conduct, said the center always notifies students about any progress or outcomes regarding their investigations.
“Whatever movement has been made, we tell the person (who filed the complaint) that it’s moving forward and in which direction,” Hunt said in an interview with The Daily Californian in August.
Campus policy and criticism
The first step in reporting a student-on-student sexual assault to the Center for Student Conduct is to go to the Title IX officer on campus.
Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding. Although commonly associated with controversial cuts to athletic teams, Title IX also regulates sexual harassment and sexual assault policies.
All reports of harassment or assault, whether taken to UCPD, the Gender Equity Resource Center or other campus resources, are also directed to the Title IX officer, who is in charge of overseeing and coordinating a campus response to allegations of sexual assault.
After speaking with the survivor, the Title IX officer decides whether sexual assault and sexual harassment cases should be pursued by the Center for Student Conduct, according to the Campus Code of Student Conduct.
Below is a copy of the Campus Code of Student Conduct, last updated in 2012.
Several survivors who reported their assaults to the Title IX officer and the Center for Student Conduct, however, have complained about difficulties in the reporting process — in particular, a lack of communication from campus officials.
In May, Commins and eight other UC Berkeley students compiled their specific grievances and filed a federal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the campus, alleging that UC Berkeley violated the Clery Act. The Clery Act requires universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to accurately report crimes that occur on and near their campuses.
In general, there are two routes of federal investigation. The first deals with the Clery Act, in which the Federal Student Aid Office examines whether campus crime statistics are accurately reported. The second is conducted by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, whose investigators probe whether schools are in compliance with Title IX.
According to statistics UC Berkeley reported for 2012, there were 13 forcible sex offenses that occurred on campus, eight in campus housing facilities, seven in off-campus areas and three on public property. Each of these figures — all filed with UCPD, Berkeley Police Department or certain campus officials — reflects slight decreases compared to numbers from 2011.
UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore could not confirm the number of complaints filed by students with the Title IX office. However, any complaint brought to the Title IX office that meets Clery criteria regarding definitions and geographic areas is included in the campus Clery statistics, Gilmore said.
Thus far, the Department of Education has not announced any investigation of UC Berkeley, according to Jane Glickman, a spokesperson for the department who said she could not comment further on the matter.
Activism in the interim
While waiting for action to be taken at the federal level, several students approached the state Legislature in the summer in an effort to accelerate change on campus.
In August, in a hearing before the Legislature, students’ testimonies compelled the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit to order an audit of UC Berkeley and three other state universities, chosen last month — UCLA, San Diego State University and Chico State University. The state auditor’s office could not explain why the other three schools were selected.
UC Berkeley junior Sofie Karasek, one of the complainants in the federal filing, shared her story at the hearing about her struggle in finding justice.
Karasek’s account is hauntingly similar to Commins’. After being assaulted by a leader in a campus organization, Karasek filed a report with the school but said she was not alerted to the status of the investigation until seven months later. By that time, her assailant was already preparing to graduate in a few weeks.
In the midst of the audit and possible investigation by the Department of Education, this fall, UC Berkeley took several new measures, including hiring an additional Title IX investigator, establishing a Title IX Compliance Advisory Group — an administrative committee with undergraduate student representatives meant to advise departments such as the Title IX office — and making resources more readily available to students.
“We have made a number of strides over the past few months to strengthen our efforts,” said Director and Title IX Officer Denise Oldham in a statement to the Daily Cal. “We have learned a great deal, made changes to address student concerns and continue to value what we learn based on our conversations with student leaders, individual students and experts in the field.”
Additionally, the Center for Student Conduct established this fall a new interim sexual misconduct policy, which, among other things, allows sexual assault survivors to appeal the resolution of their cases.
Below is a copy of the interim sexual misconduct policy
Complainants must also be notified on the same day about administrative disposition, notice of the outcome of a hearing, final decision to impose sanctions issued by the dean of students and any decision regarding an appeal.
While ASUC Student Advocate Timofey Semenov hopes the interim policy will become official by the end of next semester, there is currently no set timeline for the policy’s approval.
This semester, students also played an active role, with survivors’ voices gaining strength as they united with the ASUC to create the Cal Consent Campaign through the ASUC Office of the President’s sexual assault task force. The CalSERVE student government party also launched its own version of a national awareness campaign called Know Your IX.
Despite both student and administrative efforts to address students’ complaints, Karasek feels that much work remains to be done. Some of the changes Karasek hopes to see include ensuring that survivors have the right to request formal investigations, allowing survivors to report via in-person meetings and not through written complaints and providing rape kits at the Tang Center.
“But beyond the policy changes, I hope that the university will commit itself to taking rape and sexual assault seriously,” Karasek said. “Only by acknowledging the problem can we begin to solve it.”
According to Semenov, there are still many moving pieces, including the ongoing state audit and input from an outside advisory group.
“Enough people are aware and realize that this is important,” Semenov said. “Especially when talking about crafting new policies, we can say students are demanding new policies. This is just the beginning. I think it is going to be a long process, and it will be very interesting to see how everything plays out.”
A photo caption accompanying a previous version of this article incorrectly identified an individual as Sofie Karasek. In fact, it is Annie Clark.
A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that the campus’ interim policy is set to become official in the next semester. In fact, there is currently no set timeline by which the policy will get an official stamp of approval.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that some complaints of sexual assault may not appear in campus reports because the complaints do not result in investigations. In fact, the campus’s decision to include or exclude any case in the Clery statistics is not based on the outcome of an initial inquiry or investigation, but whether it meets Clery criteria regarding definitions and geographic areas.
A previous version of this article incorrectly implied that Hallie Hunt, director of the Center for Student Conduct, said she could not comment specifically on Nicoletta Commins’ case. In fact, while Hunt did express that she could not discuss specific cases, she made those comments during an August interview and was not speaking in particular reference to Commins.