Occidental cleared of most civil rights violations, makes reforms after sex assault complaints

Occidental College failed to address some sexual misconduct complaints promptly but did not otherwise violate federal civil rights laws and voluntarily agreed to reforms, U.S. education officials announced Thursday.

The long-awaited resolution of an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office came three years after about 50 students and faculty members filed federal complaints that administrators at the Eagle Rock liberal arts school had fostered a hostile environment for victims of sexual assault.

Occidental took action to address concerns before the investigation was completed, crafting a comprehensive new sexual misconduct policy that took effect this year.

The college also agreed to develop mandatory annual training about unlawful retaliation for staff and faculty, and to conduct annual campus surveys on sexual misconduct and annual reviews of complaints for the next three years, with federal officials monitoring their actions. 

The federal office’s investigation “found a campus actively engaged in important work to satisfy Title IX responsibilities for all students,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for civil rights. “Where we had concerns, Occidental leaders committed to taking appropriate steps to ensure student safety. I am grateful for Occidental’s responsiveness during the course of the investigation, as well as its commitment to its students.”

Occidental President Jonathan Veitch said the campus would press forward with efforts to “make Oxy safe for all of our students” and scheduled a town hall meeting for Monday to discuss the findings. 

“We have made significant progress in addressing the problem of sexual assault on campus, but there is much more that we need to do as a community to encourage survivors to come forward and to change campus culture to prevent sexual assault from occurring,” Veitch wrote in a message to the campus community Thursday. “Doing what’s required by the law doesn’t go far enough for Occidental.”

The complaints filed in 2013 drew national attention when they were announced at a high-profile news conference with several of the victims and prominent attorney Gloria Allred.

The complaints alleged that administrators discouraged victims from reporting sexual assault, failed to inform them of their rights or process their complaints promptly and imposed inadequate sanctions against known assailants. They also accused  Occidental of retaliating against whistle-blowers, conducting biased investigations with interrogations that traumatized victims and making “woefully inadequate” education and prevention efforts.

In a statement Thursday, Allred praised the Occidental students who came forward, saying their complaints led to important reforms. 

“We are proud of those students who understand that Title IX protects them in their right to obtain an education free of rape and sexual assault and that there are remedies if they become victims of sexual violence on campus,” she  wrote.

Federal investigators reviewed 768 complaints filed with the campus between 2010-11 and 2013-14 and detailed their findings in a 30-page report. Overall, they found insufficient evidence of violations other than the college’s failure to promptly review several cases during the 2012-13 school year. 

Students had complained of insufficient sanctions, for instance, but Lhamon said eight of 16 confirmed perpetrators had been expelled and the rest were given appropriately strict punishments. Campus officials also consistently protected those who reported sexual assault by issuing “stay away” letters to alleged assailants and in some cases moving them to living areas away from peers. 

Lhamon said investigators did find some problems. College administrators, she said, may have discouraged students from speaking up about their experiences with sexual violence.

The investigation found evidence of some serial perpetrators, a serious safety concern for students, but Lhamon said Occidental appropriately handled them.

Officials were also concerned that sexual assault was being under-reported. Nearly 8% of Occidental students surveyed last year said they had been sexually assaulted, a proportion lower than national survey rates of about 1 in 5 female college students. Only about 630 undergraduates, or 30% of the student body, responded to Occidental’s anonymous online survey, and advocates for sexual assault survivors criticized its design as flawed.

Lhamon said 615 anonymous complaints appeared to be hoaxes, raising concerns that Occidental was forced to squander limited resources.

“That’s a serious drain,” Lhamon said. “It speaks to the volatility of this issue on campus.”

The college’s revamped sexual misconduct policy, Lhamon said, now fully complies with Title IX, which bars sexual discrimination on campuses that receive federal funding.

Occidental was the first of 17 California campuses to be investigated by the Department of Education's civil-rights office, which in the last five years has launched more inquiries, issued stricter rules and imposed more fines than ever before. Other campuses under investigation include UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC San Francisco, UC Santa Cruz, UC Davis, Stanford and Cal Poly Pomona.

All told, federal officials currently are conducting 244 investigations at 193 colleges and universities accused of mishandling sexual misconduct cases.

Last September, federal civil rights officials found that the University of Virginia had violated Title IX by failing to promptly investigate complaints of sexual violence and provide a fair process during 2008-09 through 2011-12. But the university subsequently corrected its failings and agreed to further improvements, officials said at the time.

The aggressive federal campaign has helped bring increased attention to the issue and encouraged more victims to step forward, said W. Scott Lewis, a partner with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. Requests for the group's anti-harassment training and investigative expertise have doubled in the last year, with more than 1,000 campuses assisted since 2011, he said.

Despite the progress, many victims of sexual misconduct say their cases are still not taken seriously enough. Last week, a California judge’s lenient sentencing of a former Stanford University swimmer who sexually assaulted a woman while she was unconscious sparked widespread outrage. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to six months in jail with probation for the January 2015 assault, denying prosecutors’ request for a six-year prison sentence.

Since 2010, Occidental has hired more staff, including a confidential advocate to support victims; expanded preventative education for students, faculty and staff; reformed its investigative procedures and launched a 24/7 confidential hotline, among other steps.

Campus officials also reached a settlement in 2013 with at least 10 then-current and former students, agreeing to pay the women an undisclosed sum to avoid a lawsuit over allegations that their sexual assault complaints were mishandled.  

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

 


UPDATES:

5:15 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and comments.

This article was originally published at 12:01 p.m.

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