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UC Resources And Support For Survivors Of Sexual Violence Fall Short, Student Survey Says

Woman in her 20s with bob haircut and black denim jacket stands next to brick wall
UCLA graduate student Selene Betancourt is a member of the group Survivors + Allies
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
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Selene Betancourt was in her first academic year at the seaside campus of the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2012 when she was sexually assaulted in her dorm. More than a decade later, she’s coping not only with the trauma of the assault, but also with the campus’s response to her attack.

An assault off campus would typically be followed by a criminal investigation, charges filed, and a court trial, but that’s not what happens with sexual assaults on college campuses. Betancourt’s case was handled by UCSB’s Title IX office. Their interactions with her, she said, lacked empathy, compassion, or approaches she felt prioritized her healing from the incident.

“And in the end, they said that I was drunk but I consented and I have no memory of that,” she said.

New research conducted by Survivors + Allies, a group of UC students and faculty, shows that Betancourt’s experience was not unusual. In what they described as a first of its kind study, the group surveyed students to gauge how campus authorities responded to incidents of sexual violence and rate the resources available to sexual assault survivors.

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The conclusion:

“The resources that the UCs are providing are not sufficient for survivors,” said Sara Wilf, a doctoral student in UCLA’s school of public affairs, a co-founder of Survivors + Allies, and a co-leader of the survey.

UC campuses spend millions of dollars on investigating sexual violence, providing counseling, and other support. Researchers say there’s little data showing whether it’s working.

Wilf and her team studied offices such as Title IX, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), campus police, or Campus Assault Resources & Education (CARE).

The resources that the UCs are providing are not sufficient for survivors.
— Sara Wilf, doctoral student in UCLA’s school of public affairs, co-founder of Survivors + Allies

She and other researchers gathered responses from 1,223 people, nearly all from students across the 10 UC campuses. Of those responses, 500 were from survivors of sexual violence.

chart showing reported incidents of rape and other sexual violence at UCLA
UCLA's reporting of sexual violence data
(Screenshot from UCLA's 2022 Safety Report)

CAPS and CARE offices, she said, received high marks from sexual violence survivors but Title IX offices and campus police received poor reviews.

“Title IX was not built for survivor healing, it was built for punishment of the perpetrators,” she said.

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The survey, she said, also shows that there’s low awareness that international students and undocumented students can use sexual violence resources. Survivors of sexual violence often turn to other students for help after incidents to decide what to do. UC Survivors + Allies is unveiling the survey results in a “community teach-in” at UCLA on May 9.

Responding to the survey, UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vasquez in an email wrote:

“We are fully committed to the well-being of our students, including offering compassionate healthcare support and services to members of our community who have experienced sexual violence. We will assess the survey’s findings and consider the authors’ recommendations for UCLA.”

Tom Vasich, UC Irvine’s spokesperson, said in an email:

“UC Irvine cares deeply about the health of our students who experience sexual violence. We will review the findings of this survey and will explore how to address any issues it raises that apply to UC Irvine."

Bringing healing to students

In the fall of 2021, five years after graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Selene Betancourt enrolled in the masters of public policy at UCLA. She’s using the pain of her traumatic experience at UCSB and her academic work to help bring healing to students.

“I was a freshman student and I went out with a friend of mine just to go out like regular students,” she said of a night in her first year at UC Santa Barbara in 2012. When she and her friend came back to the dorm, she said, “I was blackout drunk.”

Earlier in the day she told a male student she had been seeing that she wanted to end their romantic relationship and just be friends. That night, she said, he found his way into her dorm and sexually assaulted her.

[I] woke up the next morning, realized what happened. I was very distraught, I called my mom immediately, I told my [resident advisor]. She made the report.
— Selene Betancourt, UCLA graduate student and member of Survivors + Allies

“[I] woke up the next morning, realized what happened. I was very distraught, I called my mom immediately, I told my [resident advisor]. She made the report,” Betancourt said.

The next day she met with the male who assaulted her, Betancourt said, and he told her not to report the incident because it would “ruin” his life. A day later, she met with the dorm’s resident director but by then, she said, confusion was taking root, and she wasn’t as sure that she wanted to report the incident.

“[The director] said someone would contact me and follow up and no one ever did,” she said.

She felt uncomfortable opening up about the assault to the campus therapist, she said, who was a white male and beginning his career. Betancourt met with a therapist off campus who helped her work through the confusion and other trauma.

Two women look at each other, a brick wall and thick tree trunk behind them
UCLA graduate students Selene Betancourt (left) and Sara Wilf are members of the group Survivors + Allies
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Two years after the incident, she reported the assault to UC Santa Barbara officials. That’s when the Title IX office concluded that the incident was consensual.

“These are great institutions but of course, bad things happen here and [administrators] need to do a much better job of supporting students when that does happen,” Wilf said.

CARE offices receive high marks, she said, because their services are confidential. CAPS got mixed reviews — low marks for long wait time for appointments, good reviews for some of the therapy.

Police staff are largely mandatory reporters, which means that they have to report incidents of sexual violence that they become aware of, and that may turn off survivors from opening up with details.

Higher education institutions that receive federal funds must publicly post each year crime statistics, including reported rape incidents.

Sexual assaults on SoCal UC campuses

Experts say the numbers posted in these reports are not an accurate portrayal of how much sexual violence is being perpetrated against college students.

“RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network), citing four Department of Justice and FBI reports from 2013, 2017, and 2020, notes that more than two out of three sexual assaults are not reported to police,” said Grace Kyungwon Hong, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women.

The RAINN analysis suggests that actual incidents of sexual violence are three times higher than the report data released each year, Hong said

UC administrators respond to the findings of the study

In an email, Ryan King, a spokesperson for the office of UC President Michael Drake, said the university system’s Title IX office “engaged in a collaborative and productive discussion with the survey authors to understand their findings and implement solutions based on what was learned from their research.”

He said the researcher’s recommendations align with higher education best practices that the UC system is in the process of carrying out.

“The [UC] Systemwide Title IX office is evaluating opportunities for improving trainings on this topic in partnership with our campus Title IX offices,” King said.

The [UC] Systemwide Title IX office is evaluating opportunities for improving trainings on this topic in partnership with our campus Title IX offices.
— UC Office of the President Spokesperson Ryan King via email

In September of 2021 Drake’s office released a long plan to reform campus policing.

“The study authors may also be unaware of the recently instituted UC Community Safety Plan,” King wrote, “which emphasizes a holistic, inclusive and tiered response model for safety services and is being enacted at our campuses.”

The chancellors of the 10 UC campuses have wide discretion and control over policies at their campuses. On many issues the UC Office of the President does not dictate how individual campuses are to carry out policies.

Wilf said she appreciates the goals of the UC Safety Plan, however via email she said, “there is still a lack of data transparency around UCPD's interactions with survivors. In particular, we believe survivors' experiences and voices should be centered in surveys and feedback rather than statistics like the number of stops UCPD officers made. We do not believe UCPD should be a frontline resource for survivors."

UC students find their voices to heal from sexual violence

Woman with long dark hair in an artistic photo with red and yellow background
UCLA doctoral student Jianchao Lai co-led the Survivors + Allies survey, and is organizing an art exhibit to give voice to sexual violence survivors.
(Courtesy Jianchao Lai)

The survey findings are being reinforced by the May 9 teach-in at UCLA and an art exhibition organized by some of the people who helped on the survey. The exhibit opens April 24 at UCLA with an in-person launch on campus on April 25.

Some of the art on display was crafted by people who’ve endured sexual violence.

“Through this [exhibit] we want to like raise people's awareness of this lived experience,” said Jianchao Lai, a doctoral student in UCLA’s department of social welfare and a co-leader of the survey, and one of the organizers of the exhibit.

While the survey may have given survivors an opportunity to have their pain seen by others, that’s not enough, she said.

Through this [exhibit] we want to like raise people's awareness of this lived experience.
— Jianchao Lai, doctoral student in UCLA’s department of social welfare, co-leader of the Survivors + Allies survey

“They're not [just] numbers or survey, not a percentage. These are individuals’ lived experiences,” Lai said.

Lai is also working on a related study called Double Jeopardy, an examination of how xenophobia and sexual violence has affected Asian and Asian American college students. The violence against Asian women during the pandemic prompted Lai to start the study.

Activists say they’ve seen improvements in recent years. There is more discussion about sexual violence but students still pay little attention to assault trainings and misogyny is still prevalent on campuses. They hope the survey results and the on campus events will push more people on campuses to rally behind their efforts to push policymakers to make sexual violence policies more compassionate.

“I wish someone would have surveyed me… about my experience,” said Selene Betancourt. “I think a lot of my healing as a survivor has been [about] how can I improve the lived experiences for students now, so that what happened to me doesn’t happen to someone else.”

What questions do you have about colleges and universities?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.

Corrected April 24, 2023 at 1:28 PM PDT
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) staff are required to report incidents of sexual violence. Therapy received through CAPS is entirely confidential.
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