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University of San Diego students call for harsher punishments for sexual assault

People hold signs saying things like "Expel rapists" while they march on a sidewalk
Students and others march on University of San Diego’s campus Sunday morning to protest the school’s decision to allow a student accused of sexual assault to return after a one-semester ban.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

More than 100 University of San Diego students held a protest on the edge of campus Sunday demanding the university expel all students found guilty of sexual assault by a campus hearing board.

The protesters said they were frustrated that a student found guilty of sexual assault was banned from campus for the spring semester instead of being expelled, contending his possible return this fall would make the campus unsafe.

University officials declined to discuss the specific incident for privacy reasons, but they stressed that sexual assaults are handled case by case and that punishments are based on a thorough review of all circumstances.

Officials said they couldn’t reveal whether the student received any punishment beyond the one-semester ban, such as community service. But they said it would be “highly unusual” for a student to be suspended without any other sanctions.

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“We strive to ensure that our strict procedures are followed consistently and that we address every reported incident with sensitivity, compassion and accountability,” the university said in an email.

The protesters described the university’s approach differently, contending that officials don’t take sexual assault seriously enough and have not put into place tough enough punishments to make students feel safe.

People protest and hold signs next to a street
University of San Diego students protest on Sunday against the school’s decision to allow a student accused of sexual assault to return to campus after a one-semester ban.
(Kristian Carreon / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

“They have a history of not bringing justice,” said Lexie Rollings, a graduating senior who helped organize the protest. “It’s just easier for them.”

Chanting slogans such as “Expel rapists” and waving signs with messages including “I don’t want to graduate next to rapists,” the protesters said the University of San Diego should have a blanket policy of expulsion for all students found guilty of sexual assault.

That’s not just for criminal cases, but for cases in which the victim has chosen to seek justice through the campus Office of Ethical Development and Restorative Practices.

Such cases typically get decided by a hearing board made up of a faculty member, an administrator and a student, each of whom receive special training on sexual assault cases before coming to a decision, the university said.

Rollings said many victims choose that route to avoid the attention and emotional challenges of pursuing a criminal case and possibly having to testify in court.

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“Some victims and survivors get retraumatized through reporting to the police,” she said.

But Rollings stressed that the one-semester ban in the case that sparked Sunday’s protest could make victims feel they either have to pursue a criminal case or not report assaults at all.

“Why would someone want to go through the process of talking about their trauma for the school to say, ‘We’re going to let him take a break for four months — just take a break and we’ll see you in four months,’” she said.

University officials said the students have a right to protest.

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“We defend the rights of students to exercise their freedom of expression and speak out on this important issue, but we also want to make very clear that the safety and well-being of the University of San Diego’s students and community members is our highest priority,” the university said. “We strive to reinforce a culture of prevention, response and accountability that ensures the safety, dignity and well-being of all members of our community.”

Rollings said the university has refused to meet with critics of its sexual assault policies, including the Gender Equity and Sex Positivity Collective, which led the protest.

Sophomore Christina Legford said students had spent weeks organizing the protest, which was held Sunday to coincide with on-campus graduation ceremonies.

She said nearly 5,000 people had signed an online petition urging the university to expel students found guilty of sexual assault. She recently persuaded the university to revamp a section of its website that she said focused too much on helping women avoid assaults.

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“The website had a lot of victim-blaming rhetoric,” she said. “We should be telling perpetrators not to rape people instead of telling women to protect themselves.”

Sophomore Tyson Aramaki said participating in the protest was the least he could do.

“It’s definitely not enough, but being here is a good first step,” he said. “I’m not one to usually get mad at an institution, but here it’s definitely deserved. A semester off is nothing.”


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