UC Berkeley must not roll back sexual violence prevention education amid a pandemic

Illustration of a Zoom meeting hosted by the UC Berkeley PATH to Care Center, which has 1179 participants
Lucy Yang/Staff

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Two years ago, I joined the PATH to Care peer educator program as a survivor. I refused to believe UC Berkeley could be complicit in the campus sexual violence crisis that had caused me harm. That was until last month, when I was informed that the PATH to Care Center would be suspending the peer educator program for a year because of anticipated budget cuts due to COVID-19.

For a long time, I was successful in my conviction. PATH to Care leads the campus’s efforts in sexual violence prevention, advocacy and confidential support. I joined other strong-willed, driven peer educators with a goal that aligned with PATH to Care’s mission: to transform our campus into one free of violence and grounded in social justice.

In 2018-19 alone, PATH to Care reached 66 departments and student groups through personalized workshops and consultations, and 1,179 undergraduates received in-person prevention training through the peer educator program. Amid COVID-19 and the lockdown, 27 peer educators continued their efforts, conducting workshops on Zoom and drafting policies remotely.

We engaged with athletes, student employees, incoming students, Greek life, social clubs and the ASUC. The nascent and ever-changing 3-year-old program, born out of student activism, has filled serious gaps in UC Berkeley’s prevention education, responding to a campus culture that came under increased scrutiny for enabling sexual harassment and harm. There’s no other undergraduate student-led program that drives prevention efforts like this.

Unfortunately, the peer education program will be put on a yearlong “hiatus” because of a gap of 30% to 40% of the budget. I’m relieved that PATH to Care’s survivor support has not been impacted. But I’m disappointed and angry about the circumstances that forced PATH to Care’s leadership to cut the peer education program, a pillar of the center’s indispensable prevention efforts.

UC Berkeley isn’t immune to campus sexual violence — it’s as salient in college life as flyering or dead week is. The 2018 MyVoice Survey reported that 29.8% of UC Berkeley undergraduates had experienced sexual harassment, 23.9% had experienced stalking and 16.8% had experienced sexual assault. Female and LGBTQA+ undergraduates have reported experiencing more harm than other students have. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts as chronic psychological effects of sexual violence. Campus sexual violence has to be treated like what it is — a public health crisis. UC Berkeley isn’t doing enough to recognize this danger.

PATH to Care has spearheaded institutionwide sexual violence prevention efforts by treating it as a public health issue and serving as the campus’s central confidential advocacy program: Anyone can receive free confidential support through the Care Line. This intersection of prevention and survivor support gives PATH to Care a unique position — to train and serve the campus community through trauma-informed and survivor-centric ways.

The decision to cut the peer education program impacted me personally — it wavered my conviction. Even after being assaulted on campus, I wanted to believe UC Berkeley would always put its students’ safety first, that Chancellor Carol Christ truly believed in the message I got as a young freshman titled, “A renewed commitment to preventing sexual violence and sexual harassment on campus.”

Does an empty campus with students engaging in remote learning end sexual violence? No. Digital sexual harassment and abuse are very real. Zoom bombing in classes shows that remote learning does not make students immune to abuse. Recent Title IX guidelines have gone further away from being survivor-centric and have reduced the geographical scope of the law, limiting its protection only to students experiencing on-campus violence. Considering the unexplored risk factors of remote learning and the new Title IX regulations, it’s disturbing that UC Berkeley would roll back prevention education because it seemingly incorrectly assumes peer education relies on in-person facilitation. These conversations work, no matter where they happen.

PATH to Care, and other care centers across the UC system, represent the university’s promise to be a steward of student safety, to listen to survivors and to prevent violence. Discontinuing prevention education will leave a vacuum in our community. It raises the question of which program will be impacted next. Graduate and staff training? Advocacy? How many full-time employees are at risk of losing their jobs?

The Independent Advisory Board on Police Accountability and Community Safety submitted its recommendations to Christ, one of which calls for the divestment of funds from UCPD and the reallocation of resources “to other services that support student, staff, and faculty wellbeing.” How did the UC system spend more than $138 million on policing in 2018-19, but not have enough funding for the well-being of its campus community?

How does a pandemic, economic crisis and racial movement not make it more urgent for an institution to reevaluate whether money spent on campus safety through policing could be better spent by preventing violence and the ensuing physical and psychological trauma?

We cannot end campus sexual violence individually. We must confront the problem with institutional and community engagement. We need the peer education program, for a campus community that not only has invested in this through the wellness fee — which funds a portion of PATH to Care — but has also committed to a safer campus by requesting workshops and consultations.

We must protect the PATH to Care Center, which has (while completely understaffed) served the campus community and galvanized a sense of shared responsibility in its members to personally participate in reforming UC Berkeley’s campus culture. We demand that UC Berkeley refund and ensure long-term protected funding for the PATH to Care Center. Else, the sanctuary for student activism will go down in history as an institution that is itself complicit in the campus sexual violence epidemic.

For immediate support, survivors or concerned supporters can contact PATH to Care’s 24/7 confidential Care Line at 510-643-2005 or schedule an appointment during office hours at 510-642-1988.

Sheel Chandra is a rising senior at UC Berkeley and a peer educator at the PATH to Care Center. She can be reached at sheelchandra [at] berkeley [dot] edu.