College shelved more assault reports
Occidental College’s underreporting of sexual assault allegations was far more extensive than campus officials have acknowledged, according to documents, interviews and a Times review of two confidential federal complaints against the school.
In October, the college said it had failed to disclose two dozen sexual assault allegations made by students in 2010 and 2011, a potential violation of federal law. At the time, officials said their revisions represented a complete accounting of the assault cases.
A Times review found 27 additional sexual assault allegations made in 2012 that have not been disclosed. Dozens more may have been ignored by the dean of students’ office since 2009 because they were made anonymously, records and interviews showed.
A front-page article in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 7, 2013, was incorrect in reporting that Occidental College failed to disclose 27 alleged sexual assaults that occurred in 2012.
The article (“College shelved more assault reports”) dealt with Occidental’s obligations under the federal Clery Act, which requires schools to publish statistics annually on reported crime on or near campus.
Occidental representatives approached The Times early this month to seek a correction. Documents reviewed by The Times this week show that the 27 incidents did not fall under the law’s disclosure requirements for a variety of reasons.
Some were not sexual assaults as defined by the Clery Act. Rather, they involved sexual harassment, inappropriate text messages or other conduct not covered by the act. Other alleged incidents were not reported because they occurred off-campus, beyond the boundaries that Occidental determined were covered by the act. Some occurred in 2011, and the college accounted for them that year.
Subsequent Times articles published Dec. 20 in the LATExtra section and Jan. 23 in Section A repeated the original error regarding the alleged underreporting of sexual assaults.
The Times regrets the errors in the articles.
Separately, as they began looking into the complaint, Times editors learned from the author of the articles, staff writer Jason Felch, that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with someone who was a source for the Dec. 7 story and others Felch had written about Occidental’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Felch acknowledged that after the relationship ended, he continued to use the person as a source for future articles.
Times Editor Davan Maharaj dismissed Felch on Friday. Maharaj said the inappropriate relationship with a source and the failure to disclose it earlier constituted “a professional lapse of the kind that no news organization can tolerate.”
He added: “Our credibility depends on our being a neutral, unbiased source of information in appearance as well as in fact.”
FOR THE RECORD:
Occidental College assaults: An article in the Dec. 7 Section A about Occidental College’s failure to report sexual assaults stated that college President Jonathan Veitch told the campus newspaper he had met with an alleged assailant and decided the student did not pose an ongoing threat. A campus spokesman said Veitch’s staff, not Veitch, met with the student.
In other cases, administrators actively discouraged victims from filing reports, according to the complaints reviewed by The Times. “Are you sure you really want to go through with this?” Associate Dean of Students Erica O’Neal Howard told one student who said she was raped last February, according to the complaint. “It is a really long and hard process, and it may cause you more pain and suffering.”
Top administrators -- including the college’s president, dean of students and former general counsel -- are accused in the complaints of suppressing assault reports, retaliating against those who raised concerns and, in one case, attempting to organize a group of male athletes to rebuff administration critics.
The complaints were filed last spring by dozens of students and faculty members at the small liberal arts college in Eagle Rock. They sparked Department of Education probes into alleged violations of the Clery Act, which requires campuses to disclose all reports of serious crime, and Title IX, the federal anti-discrimination law.
A national debate
The federal investigations come amid a national debate over how administrators deal with sexual assault reports. Dozens of campuses across the country, including USC and UC Berkeley, have been the subject of similar complaints. Several of them have been organized by Know Your IX, a group of activists who have used social media to raise awareness about victims’ rights and colleges’ obligations under the law.
Many of the complaints have charged that campus authorities discouraged reporting of sexual assaults to protect their public image and to avoid lawsuits from alleged perpetrators. Campus administrators generally deny this, but acknowledged they have struggled to comply with federal laws while balancing the rights of accusers and the accused.
Occidental officials declined to comment on specific incidents in the complaints. “Given the two investigations currently underway by the Department of Education, we believe our students will be best served by the conclusions reached through these comprehensive, thorough, and public reviews,” spokesman James Tranquada said in a statement. “In the meantime, Occidental continues to move ahead with its efforts to improve its policies and procedures to ensure the College is a national leader in dealing with sexual misconduct.”
Administrators began discovering the depth of Occidental’s reporting problems last spring, after students and faculty sharply criticized the college for its response to the alleged rape of a female student at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in February.
After filing a police report, the woman said she went to the dean of students’ office to initiate a disciplinary case against her alleged assailant, an Occidental student. According to her account detailed in the complaint, she was discouraged from filing a report and told by another dean not to discuss the matter with anyone “to avoid civil claims.”
Administrators did not issue a campus safety alert in response to her report -- a step the college routinely takes after bicycle thefts, car break-ins and stolen laptops, the complaint says. College President Jonathan Veitch later told the campus newspaper that he had met with the alleged assailant and decided he did not seem to pose a serious or ongoing threat, the threshold for an alert under the Clery Act.
After a professor and student criticized the administration in an interview with a television station, Veitch issued a public letter saying they had “actively sought to embarrass the college.” He later apologized for the statement, but his letter is cited in the federal complaint as evidence that he retaliated against them.
In March, some 300 students gathered outside the dean of students’ office to protest the administration’s failure to issue an alert. The uproar led to an internal review by Occidental administrators that found deeper problems, many involving the office of Barbara Avery, the longtime dean of students.
For years, Avery’s office had only reported cases that had been investigated by campus officials, records and interviews show.
Among those that weren’t disclosed to the federal government were anonymous allegations filed online, a system the college set up in 2009 to encourage the reporting of sexual assaults. Occidental declined to disclose how many such reports have been made.
Avery has told faculty and administrators that there had been 34 sexual assault reports in 2012. The annual crime report issued in October shows seven for that year.
Avery declined to comment on the discrepancy. Tranquada, the college spokesman, said, “Clery reporting is clearly an area where we need to improve.” It is possible that some of the alleged assaults do not meet federal reporting guidelines because they occurred off campus.
The federal complaints allege that the omissions were part of a deliberate effort by Avery and others to keep the reported number of assaults on campus low. Avery has told faculty she did not know she was required to disclose the anonymous reports, according to meeting minutes reviewed by The Times.
A federal complaint
As administrators were uncovering the depth of the problems, faculty and student activists announced they would file a federal complaint against Occidental. Days later, officials added 15 new reports of sexual assault to the campus crime log, which is required under the Clery Act, records show.
Administrators gave contradictory accounts of why so many cases, some of them dating back years, had been added to the log.
“I understand that [these] came from an anonymous reporting form that we -- the institution, bigger than me -- now understand need to be included in our stats,” campus safety director Holly Nieto told the Occidental Weekly, a student newspaper. “So we caught up, if you will.”
But Howard, the associate dean of students, said the reports were new complaints that had all been filed anonymously online in previous days.
The college has been noting anonymous complaints in the campus safety log ever since. But it has not been kept accurately, according to sociology professor Danielle Dirks, who filed eight reports in late March.
She identified them as sexual assaults, but when they were posted to the crime log days later, they were downgraded as sexual batteries, records show.
Later that month, Avery asked Occidental’s general counsel Carl Botterud to encourage a group of male athletes to form a club, Occidental Men Against Rape, that would counter the activists on campus, records and interviews show.
The Athletic Department required each team to send two members to a meeting in the department’s Trophy Room, records show. Botterud used crude language to encourage the men to make their voices heard.
“If the activists make you feel like your voice doesn’t count,
“I remember being confused why he was leading the meeting,” recalled one student who attended. “He never said anything about being passionate about doing something about sexual assault.”
In May, the faculty overwhelmingly approved votes of no confidence in Avery and Botterud. Over the summer, Botterud stepped down from his position after an outside attorney investigated his role in handling sexual assaults on campus.
“My decision to leave the college had nothing to do with that investigation,” Botterud said in an interview. “There were people in the community who were very angry with me, and I believe my continued presence would have been a distraction and detrimental to the institution.”
The woman who said she was raped in the fraternity has dropped out of Occidental and was one of at least 10 alleged victims to whom the college paid undisclosed sums to avoid lawsuits. The student she accused was found responsible and expelled, records show.