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Congresswoman aims to crack down on campuses' sex assault 'epidemic'

A California congresswoman has announced plans to introduce federal legislation to toughen laws against what she called an epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses.

In an appearance at UC Berkeley last week, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said she would press for more aggressive action against sexual assault with increased funding for federal investigators, annual campus surveys and more comprehensive data on the outcomes of cases.

She also said she would seek to require universities to interview students who file complaints of sexual misconduct, addressing widespread concerns about inadequate investigations.

"The prevalence of sexual assault on campuses is an epidemic," Speier said in an interview. "It's going to take money, resources, enforcement and a dramatic change in the culture" to fix.

Speier met with media along with six UC Berkeley students who have filed complaints with the federal government against the university in the last year, alleging a failure to adequately handle their cases.

Sofie Karasek, a junior studying political economy, said she filed a complaint against a student leader she says sexually assaulted her during an off-campus trip in 2012.

But she said university officials never contacted her to take part in an investigation or to keep her posted on the progress of the case. She said she had to repeatedly reach out to officials for information and learned months later that the student leader had been put on disciplinary probation, given counseling and graduated early.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating the complaint charging that Berkeley officials mishandled sexual assault cases, the Oakland Tribune reported Friday.

Karasek said she and other students were encouraged, however, by a meeting Monday with UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks to convey their demands for stronger action.

Among other things, the students asked that a certified rape crisis counselor be provided to victims, that education about assaults be expanded beyond a focus on alcohol and that fraternities and sororities be targeted for additional outreach.

"He gave us a chance to talk to him, which no administrator has ever done," Karasek said of Dirks. "It was really quite a shock — he was very polite."

Dirks could not be reached for comment, but UC Berkeley spokeswoman Claire Holmes said the university would continue to strengthen its efforts against sexual assault.

In recent months, officials have added two campus investigators, unveiled a sexual assault website, established a policy allowing students who report an assault to bring an advocate to hearings and appeal the outcomes, and are creating new positions to help victims through the process, among other actions.

"We know we can get better, and we are committed to improving in any way we can," Holmes said.

Speier said research suggests that one in five women are sexually assaulted on campuses but that nearly two-thirds of universities shirk their legal duty to address the cases. Yet, she said national momentum is growing to take stronger action against the problem.

The U.S. Department of Education has opened investigations nationwide, and the Obama administration has convened a federal task force to develop new approaches to combat sexual assault. Last month, the University of California announced new guidelines that require administrators to report more types of violence and harassment and provide more support to victims.

Speier said she would continue to seek input from victims and others about additional proposals for federal legislation, which she expects to introduce in the next month.

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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