POLITICS

Occidental College Mostly Cleared In Federal Sexual Assault Investigation

Activists complained the college failed to properly punish attackers, but an Education Department report disagrees.
Gloria Allred represented several students who reached a settlement with Occidental over their sexual assault cases. 
Gloria Allred represented several students who reached a settlement with Occidental over their sexual assault cases. 

A federal investigation found that, contrary to complaints from current and former students, Occidental College did not mishandle cases of sexual assault, except for delays in several cases during the 2012-13 school year.

But the report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights did find that the campus climate may be leading some students not to report sexual assaults they experience. 

Occidental's investigation started in 2013, at the beginning of a wave of activism around campus rape. The private liberal arts college in Los Angeles entered into a voluntary resolution this week with the Education Department to measure the climate on campus as it relates to sexual violence and to improve the speed with which the college investigates assault reports. The agreement ends the investigation, allowing the government to release its findings.

As more and more universities are put on notice about how they handle sexual assault, the results of investigations such as this can provide insight into what federal officials expect from institutions.

The investigation launched in May 2013, following a complaint filed by more than three dozen students, recent alumni and faculty alleging that Occidental retaliated against activists and issued soft punishments for sexual assault offenses. After the complaint was publicized, faculty at Occidental voted "no confidence" in two high-level administrators named in the federal filings. 

OCR investigated Occidental under the federal law Title IX, which bars discrimination based on sex. Courts have interpreted the statute as requiring schools to address reports of harassment, including assault. 

Thursday's report did not agree with claims that the college gave lax punishments for sexual violence, including assigning five-page book reports as sanctions for students found responsible for assaulting women. While the investigation revealed the school did indeed hand out essay assignments to students found responsible for sexual violence, federal investigators said these were often given in conjunction with other sanctions, like probation. The report further noted that other punishments, such as expulsion and suspension, were applied in several cases.

An excerpt from the report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights
An excerpt from the report by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights

"OCR found insufficient evidence that the College failed to sanction respondents consistent with its stated guidelines or to take steps reasonably calculated to prevent the recurrence of harassment or assault under Title IX," the report said. 

The report did find one instance where a student found responsible for sexual misconduct in two cases was given "educational sanctions." But the second case concluded after he had graduated, so Occidental required him to complete more "educational sanctions prior to receiving his transcript."

Students organized the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition to bring a complaint against the college in Los Angeles, Califo
Students organized the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition to bring a complaint against the college in Los Angeles, California.

Some of the investigations took longer than the Education Department's recommended 60-day timeframe, which the report called a concern.

The investigation examined 49 formal and informal complaints of sexual assault and harassment made to the college. However, the federal investigators had trouble getting complainants to sign consent forms to allow for a full inquiry, meaning much of the investigation was based on Occidental's records.

Education Department attorneys also looked at more than 700 anonymous complaints related to harassment and assault, but the bulk of these were filed by trolls, investigators said. 

Many of the complainants involved were not available to comment Thursday due to a settlement reached with Occidental in September 2013. Caroline Heldman, a professor who helped file the complaint, said she is very pleased with the investigation because activists are getting what survivors asked for, with federal officials monitoring for compliance and OCR helping rewrite how Occidental handles sexual assault. 

"Oxy has completely revamped the policies and procedures over the past three years working with OCR," Heldman said. "As much as the report is dismissive of survivors' claims, the college's actions and OCR's recommendations shows Oxy has issues, that they're resolving to be compliant with federal law."

The federal investigation also disagreed with claims that the college retaliated against critics.

For example, the complaint cited comments by Occidental President Jonathan Veitch in March 2013, when he accused "well-intentioned people" of choosing to "embarrass the College on the evening news," referring to criticism aired to local media. OCR said this remark "could have had the effect of chilling or interfering with protected activity" but let it slide because Veitch apologized and took steps to improve "policy and practice."

An examination by consultants from Pepper Hamilton in 2014 partially blamed the activists who filed the complaints for impeding work to improve the college's handling of sexual violence. The Pepper Hamilton consultants praised Occidental for hiring several new staff members to handle sexual violence, reworking the school’s sexual misconduct policy and expanding the website that assault survivors use to report incidents.

Activism picked up again in November 2015 as students on campus called for Veitch to step down due to his administration's handling of sexual assault cases and treatment of students of color. Though some faculty supported the student protests, the trustees reaffirmed that they would not have Veitch resign.

In 2014, a male student sued Occidental arguing that when he was accused of sexual assault, school investigators ignored evidence and did not allow him a fair process. A 2015 motion filed in that case noted that there were at least three lawsuits pending against the college over student conduct proceedings. 

But the report credited Occidental with attempting to balance due process rights with sexual assault victims' needs, and federal officials found that all students were able to provide evidence and witnesses in formal adjudications of sexual assault claims. 

Occidental has admitted to underreporting the number of sexual assaults on campus to federal officials in the fall of 2013, but OCR's investigation did not examine whether the school violated the law in its crime tracking.

Veitch, the college's president, pledged to keep improving Occidental's processes in a statement Thursday

"The close of this investigation does not mean an end to our efforts to make Oxy safe for all of our students," he said. "We have made significant progress in addressing the problem of sexual assault on campus, but there is much more that we need to do as a community to encourage survivors to come forward and to change campus culture to prevent sexual assault from occurring."

______

Tyler Kingkade is a national reporter focusing on higher education and sexual violence, and is based in New York. You can reach him at tyler.kingkade@huffingtonpost.com or find him on Twitter: @tylerkingkade.

CONVERSATIONS