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Occidental College rifts mar progress on handling of sex cases, report says

Occidental College improves its handling of sexual assaults, a report says, but divisions threaten progress

Occidental College, under federal investigation for its handling of sexual assault complaints, has taken "sincere and significant" steps to improve its practices but is riven by bitter campus divisions that jeopardize future progress, according to an outside audit released Tuesday.

The 130-page report, commissioned by college President Jonathan Veitch, found that the small, private Eagle Rock campus quickly expanded its staff, education and training on sexual assault in a genuine commitment to "getting it right."

Since campus activists filed two complaints with the U.S Department of Education in April 2013 alleging the college mishandled allegations, the audit said, Occidental has taken at least 45 steps to improve policies. These included revamping its misconduct policy, hiring a confidential advocate to support victims and creating an independent office staffed by a full-time coordinator to handle complaints under the federal Title IX law, which prohibits educational discrimination.

"They have been tremendously responsive all along the way," said Leslie M. Gomez, one of two attorneys who conducted the audit.

But, underscoring the polarized campus climate, the audit was dismissed by Caroline Heldman, an associate professor who helped form the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition to press for stronger action on sexual assault complaints.

She alleged that the college had taken only "superficial steps" and had refused demands by the coalition to enforce strict sanctions against perpetrators and require a stronger standard for consent before students have sex.

"This is not an objective investigation in any way, shape, or form. It's a report commissioned and paid for by President Veitch to spin his mishandling of sexual assault issues at Oxy," she said in an email.

Veitch, in a statement, said the college still had "more work to do" but that the report "represents another step in our continuing work to enhance our response to sexual misconduct...." He announced a campuswide meeting on the audit for next Tuesday.

The report comes amid escalating pressure from activists and the federal government to crack down on campus sexual misconduct. Since 2011, the federal government has launched more investigations, levied more fines and issued more directives to campuses on how to better address the problem than ever before. In California, Occidental, UCLA, UC Berkeley, USC, Butte-Glen Community College District and California Institute of the Arts are under investigation by the U.S. education department.

Occidental has been a hotbed of activism on the issue, led in part by Heldman, who began drawing attention to the problem since at least 2009. But a "stark polarization" on campus over the issue could derail efforts to make further progress, the audit found.

"This polarization is counterproductive, has damaged the dialogue and in some cases effectively silenced members of the College community who have expressed fears of ostracism and retaliation by either the administration or the activist community," the report said. "The key to achieving success at Occidental is directly tied to the community's ability to rebuild damaged and frayed relationships and find a way to share common goals..."

The report said, for instance, that auditors' efforts to meet with those who had alleged sexual misconduct were rebuffed by faculty coalition members; the report included a six-page appendix detailing auditors' efforts to do so.

Heldman said that such allegations were "patently false" and that the auditors failed to take up three offers to review the complaints or meet with those who had filed them.

"They willfully ignored survivor stories of mistreatment by campus officials," Heldman said.

Gomez and the report's coauthor, Gina Maisto Smith, declined to respond publicly to that criticism.

Occidental spokesman James Tranquada said the college would continue to "work inclusively toward our common goals, even with strong views and at times, sharp disagreement. Despite our differences, we all care very deeply about preventing sexual violence."

In the report, the auditors examined the handling of 17 sexual assault cases against 12 students filed between 2011 and 2013. They found that the college had made "good faith efforts" to conduct timely investigations, with most completed within the 60 days generally recommended by the federal government.

That finding contrasts with activist complaints that most investigations "drag out well beyond" the two-month time frame.

Among those cases, the college found eight students responsible and four not responsible for sexual assault. Five were expelled and the others received suspensions, probation or community service.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

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