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Congresswoman urges better protections against campus sexual assault

Colleges and UniversitiesCrime, Law and JusticeSexual AssaultCrimeLaws and LegislationUC BerkeleyU.S. Department of Education

A California congresswoman announced plans Tuesday 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, 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 appeared with six UC Berkeley students who have filed federal complaints 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 alleges 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 contacted her to keep her posted on the progress of the case. She said she had to repeatedly contact officials for information and learned months later that the other student had been put on disciplinary probation, given counseling and graduated early.

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 was not available 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 survivors 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.

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Twitter: @TeresaWatanabe

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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