A student-faculty coalition at Occidental College in Los Angeles is gaining national attention for standing up to campus administrators in the wake of yet another example of colleges and universities across the country mishandling reports of sexual assault.
Students, alumni, and parents are expressing shock and outrage this week as details continue emerging about administrators' refusal to use the campus alert system to warn students after reports of a sexual assault in late February. In fact, campus officials knowingly waited to acknowledge the incident until after students learned of the assault from the local news.
Especially disturbing are the excuses for why administrators failed to alert students. According to an email from Barbara Avery, dean of students, the incident did not merit use of the alert system because the college determined the incident presented no "continuing threat."
A week later in a controversial letter to the campus community dated March 5, President Jonathan Veitch claimed that the alert system was not used because in "incidents like these" administrators may not know what happened for "days or even weeks."
Mr. Veitch, administrators, how can your college immediately determine reports of sexual assault present no "continuing threat" to students, while simultaneously claiming you may not know what happened for weeks?
Rape is a crime, and a rapist on campus means there is a continuing threat to students.
When it is unclear what happened, a threat is still present. Using the campus alert system lets students know a rape has been reported, increasing awareness and safety among the campus community.
The Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) responded swiftly. In an powerful open letter to President Veitch released last Wednesday, OSAC announced they are filing a federal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) about ongoing sexual assault issues at Occidental. Additionally, they are filing a Clery Act complaint about the administration's sexual misconduct reporting.
Comprised of students and faculty, OSAC works to improve campus sexual assault prevention and response policies. Last fall they developed a set of 12 demands designed to increase campus safety including establishing a 24-hour sexual assault hotline, and reinstating verbal consent in the sexual assault policy. Campus administrators were applauded for agreeing to the dozen requests, a move which was perceived as a step in the right direction.
Also on the list to which Occidental administrators agreed? Using Oxy's Crime Alert System to inform the campus of reported sexual assaults. In their response to this specific statement, administrators went as far as adding that "timely information on recent incidents is an important tool in the fight against sexual assault, both on and off campus." However, when the time came to implement this tool, administrators turned their back on student safety.
"It is disheartening to see the leader of an institution go back on their word and, again, drag out a process of reform," said senior OSAC member Audrey Logan. "Rape and sexual assaults are happening at our school while the administration chooses to talk about possible policies rather than implement simple changes that would make students feel safe and create a culture that doesn't tolerate sexual violence."
Senior politics major Alana Murphy has worked with OSAC from the beginning. "Our campus will not be safe while our administrators drag their feet in fixing this issue," she said. "The Oxy student body is comprised of amazing people that are passionate about this issue. We care about our campus and we want everyone to have the experience they deserve while at Oxy."
Filing an official complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, along with a Clery Act complaint, is OSAC's latest step in a series of attempts to change how sexual assault reporting is handled on their campus, but Occidental is hardly alone. How many more stories must we hear at campuses across the country before sexual assault prevention and response is taken seriously? And more importantly, how many survivor stories remain unheard?
"I have hope for this campus once the institution demonstrates a true understanding of the issues and zero tolerance for these crimes," said Logan. "The fight will continue until then."