Last Wednesday, 31 students filed two federal complaints against the University of California, Berkeley for failing to prevent, investigate, or discipline assailants in cases of sexual violence and harassment. I was one of the students. While our individual stories are unique, our experiences of sexual assault are all too common at universities across the United States.
My second semester at Berkeley, I was sexually assaulted on an off-campus trip with a student organization. I had never been involved in the group before that weekend in February 2012, whereas, my assailant was a leader in the group and older than me.
After it happened to me, I quickly learned from another leader in the organization that I wasn't the first person he had assaulted. She pressured him into resigning from his position in the group, which we hoped would temporarily deter him from assaulting anyone again. But I was still afraid that he would do it again because of his past history, so she consulted the Gender Equity Resource Center (GenEq), a supposed resource on our campus, for help.
To my surprise, GenEq, which is often a positive and inclusive space for many students, advised her against removing him from the organization. The Center advised that we should "keep him close in case he does it again" so that he would "have a community of friends to support him in processing it". To me, this sounded bizarre: why should his healing process take precedent over the possibility that he could assault me again, or assault another person?
Not even a month after that conversation, I learned that he allegedly did assault another person. At that point, I was connected to three others who had all said they have been assaulted by him as well, and we turned to the university to officially report our assailant together.
No one ever confirmed having read my statement, and no one ever contacted me to take part in an investigation. After seven months went by with no response, I inquired into my case when I suddenly learned through a friend that he was going to graduate early. After multiple attempts to contact administrators, I was told that my case had "been resolved through an early resolution process" and that he had been found in violation of Berkeley policies, without specifying whether any disciplinary action had been taken against him. Shortly thereafter, he graduated.
It wasn't until a year and a half after my assault that I learned of the sanctions. According to Berkeley, he was put on "disciplinary probation" and had "engaged in counseling measures". They also said that: "any further misconduct during that probationary period could have resulted in further disciplinary action". How many survivors does it take for a serial perpetrator to be punished?
Like many victims, I felt I was alone at first, but I realized my experience of assault and then disappointing treatment from my university was all too commonplace, including at some of America's top institutions of higher learning.
In April of last year, I read about students connecting nationwide through social media to hold their universities accountable. I finally felt that I had agency in this process, and wanted to immediately prevent Berkeley from treating others as horribly as we were treated.
A month later, eight students and I filed a federal Clery Act complaint against Berkeley, hoping that the government could help us when our university would not. It's now been almost a year, and after multiple failed attempts to reach the Department of Education about our case, we have now filed yet another Clery Act complaint, in addition to a Title IX complaint with the Office for Civil Rights. Our complaint has grown from nine to 31 cases.
It is unacceptable that as we wait for the federal government to respond, more students are being sexually assaulted and continue to have their cases dismissed, mishandled, and ignored if they choose to report them. Several students had problems with the administrative process even after the first complaint and even after the state of California began auditing our school's handling of sexual violence.
While the intentions of the Department of Education and UC Berkeley may be different, the impact of their seemingly deliberate indifference to sexual violence is the same. Neither the Department of Education nor UC Berkeley have made the efforts necessary to address the pervasive culture of sexual violence on campus. Title IX is hardly enforced, and Clery Act violations cost $35,000 each – chump change to many universities who have endowments numbering in the millions or even billions of dollars.
This is not only disappointing, it is also dangerous for the students who attend college and is representative of a larger problem: our federal government is not adequately enforcing its own laws.
But the real cost of federal law violations cannot be measured in dollars. At Berkeley alone, survivors have been forced to drop out of classes, finish degrees sooner, switch housing arrangements, or else risk being assaulted again or terrorized by their assailants. Many students do not feel safe.
Sexual assault is an epidemic across college campuses; you are more likely to be sexually assaulted if you attend university than if you do not. And too often, the subsequent betrayal from the university is even worse than the assault itself. As one survivor stated: "If I knew what I know now, I wouldn't have reported my case ... I would have rather taken this secret to my grave than to have told anyone at Berkeley."
How many survivors have to speak before someone starts to listen?