Federal probe into UC Berkeley’s handling of sexual violence cases underway

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The federal government is engaged in an ongoing investigation — which began in late March — into how UC Berkeley handles sexual violence complaints and whether that could lead to a hostile environment on campus.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights began its probe about a month after it received a complaint written by 31 current and former UC Berkeley students alleging that campus administrators violated Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally funded programs and activities.

Although the office has not yet released a timeline for the probe, investigators began meeting with sexual assault survivors last week. In a letter to the students who filed the complaint, the office stated that the allegations against the campus are “appropriate for investigation” but “in no way imply that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits.”

Campus spokesperson Janet Gilmore said UC Berkeley will fully cooperate with the investigation.

“Much has been done to strengthen the campus’s handling of these issues, but we understand that there is always room for improvement,” Gilmore said in an email.

Gilmore pointed to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ letter from Feb. 25 that stated that sexual assault is not tolerated in the community and outlined steps the campus took to improve its response to sexual assault.

If investigators from the office determine that UC Berkeley is not in compliance with Title IX, they can issue a resolution agreement asking the campus to voluntarily take actions to be in compliance.

UC Berkeley sophomore Meghan Warner, one of the 31 complainants, said she was optimistic about what might come out of the investigation and pleased that investigators were willing to meet with survivors.

“It’s been hard to get people with influence to meet with us,” Warner said. “It’s another important step in holding our school accountable, so that’s exciting.”

Sofie Karasek — a UC Berkeley junior who filed the complaint and has publicly spoken out against the administration on multiple occasions — said she wants the investigation to pressure the campus to change. Although Karasek’s case was filed several years ago, she hopes her activism will help prevent incidents of sexual assault from happening to other students.

“If I talk about it, it might help others talk about it too,” Karasek said. “Once you know it’s as bad as it is, you don’t want to spend your time doing anything else. Your conscience doesn’t let you.”

Along with the Title IX complaint, which was filed the day after Dirks sent his Feb. 25 letter, Karasek and fellow complainants refiled a Clery Act complaint, which alleges the campus incorrectly reported crime statistics to the federal government. The first Clery complaint was  filed last May.

The Office for Civil Rights stated in its letter to complainants that it received the Title IX complaint Feb. 27. The Clery complaints, which are investigated by a different office within the Department of Education, have not yet been publicly opened for inquiry.

The Office for Civil Rights has an exact procedure for its investigations and may close the case prior to making formal findings depending on the circumstances of information it gathers. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the Department of Education is currently investigating 53 colleges across the country, up from 35 in January.

The state auditor is also examining how UC Berkeley and three other public universities in California handle sexual violence and harassment cases, with results slated for release in June.

 

Contact Kimberly Veklerov at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @KVeklerov.