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A 2014 State Audit Took Aim At Sexual Violence On College Campuses. Here's What's Changed And What Hasn't

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Students Lounge on grass near Royce Hall at UCLA. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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A 2014 California State audit that looked into how colleges and universities in California responded to reports of sexual harassment and sexual violence drew a blunt conclusion: "California Universities Must Better Protect Students by Doing More to Prevent, Respond to, and Resolve Incidents."

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It's been more than six years since the audit recommended public university administrators in California establish regular training of students and employees and take steps to inform them of university policies and practices regarding sexual violence. Campus interviews suggest substantive changes have taken place -- but big gaps remain.

"I was sexually assaulted by a president of a fraternity," said Laura Knittig, a 2020 graduate of UCLA who reported the attack about a year before graduating.

An official investigation was conducted -- but, she says, "I still am not entirely sure about where the information goes, where the reports are filed, what they do when it's over, who knows the specific details about what happened to me, because there's not complete transparency throughout the entire process at all."

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UCLA Graduate and Advocate Laura Knittig at UCLA. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

The 2014 audit was ordered to address the longstanding lack of transparency over investigations and the dearth of training to combat sexual attacks. It identified what wasn't being done and made 73 recommendations to the California State University system and University of California administrators as well as California legislators.

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The bulk of the audit targeted four campuses: San Diego State University, UCLA, UC Berkeley, and Chico State. It recommended that the campuses institute yearly training of university employees regarding their responsibilities to report and respond to sexual violence and sexual harassment.

"By not ensuring that employees are sufficiently trained on responding to and reporting incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence, the universities risk having their employees mishandle student reports of the incidents," State Auditor Elaine Howle wrote in the report.

By 2017, administrators of the UC and CSU systems told the auditor's office that all campuses had been directed to comply with the audit's recommendations and that each campus would be monitored for compliance.

Still, Knitting and others at UCLA say there is not enough transparency about the sexual assault process and not enough training of employees and students.

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UCLA Professor Jennifer Wagman who advocates against Sexual Violence at UCLA. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)
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"Faculty don't know what it means to be a mandated reporter," said Jennifer Wagman, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. "So what typically happens is that instead of trying to figure that out, most people just avoid it. And that's a big, big problem."

UCLA's 2020 Clery report shows that there were 26 incidents of rape and 16 incidents of dating violence reported to UCLA in 2019. In 2017 there were 31 rape incidents reported and 29 dating violence incidents reported.

It's widely understood that incidents in these type of reports are only the tip of the iceberg.

"We know that the vast majority of individuals who experience some type of violence do not report it," Wagman said. "It's been estimated that maybe 10%, maximum, of victims or survivors of assault or misconduct report to anyone, such as [the] Title IX [office]."

UCLA responds that protecting employees and students from sexual violence is a top priority.

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"We use a variety of methods -- ranging from campus-wide emails, our own website to trainings for faculty, students and staff -- to ensure that our community is aware of the processes, resources and support services we have available to anyone who believes they have been affected by sexual harassment or sexual violence," UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vasquez said in an email.

THE AUDIT TAKES UNIVERSITIES TO TASK

Anthony Rendon, now Speaker of the California Assembly, requested the the audit in 2013 after reading about how college administrators mishandled accusations of sexual violence on campuses in California and across the country.

That same year, Caroline Heldman, a professor of critical theory and social justice at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and more than three dozen current and former students accused Occidental in a federal lawsuit of violating their equal rights by failing to adequately carry out anti-sexual violence policies.

"Back in 2013, we had been working with other survivor activists across the country to try to lobby our administrators to take the issue of sexual violence seriously on college campuses," she said.

Soon after, USC students raised their own allegations that their campus had mishandled their complaints of sexual violence. The university's most infamous case continues to this day -- just last month, a federal judge said he would be inclined to accept the terms of a $215 million class-action settlement with former patients of George Tyndall, a USC gynecologist accused of hundreds of cases of sexual assault.

The 2014 audit recommended that students should receive training on how to prevent and report sexual violence and sexual harassment within a few weeks after arriving on campus and in annual refresher programs, and that the university should put registration on hold for any students who didn't comply.

The audit also recommended supplemental training for athletic coaches, resident advisors, and student athletes, and said universities should do a better job posting and distributing their policies on preventing sexual violence and sexual harassment.

Additionally, the auditor recommended the state legislature step in to pass laws to compel the public universities to make these changes. Those recommendations have not been met.

The state auditor says three of the four targeted universities have fully implemented all the audit's recommendations.

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Two men eat lunch near Royce Hall at UCLA. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

UCLA has fully implemented all but two of 14 recommendations. In a written response, the university told the auditor that it would secure new training for employees by January, 2021, but it has not yet done so. The pandemic's partly behind the delay, UCLA said.

"In the interim, UCLA's Title IX Office has increased the number of in-person/virtual trainings for faculty and staff that addresses their Responsible Employee duties... The university is working to implement refresher programs for all students in 2021," UCLA spokesman Vasquez said in an email.

Title IX requires schools to adopt and publish grievance procedures for students to file complaints of sex discrimination, including complaints of sexual harassment or sexual violence. Trump administration Education Secretary Betsy DeVos drew criticism last year for ordering changes to the complaint process that allow people accused of sexual misconduct to question evidence and cross-examine accusers.

STUDENTS AND FACULTY WORKING ON SOLUTIONS TO SEXUAL VIOLENCE

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Doreen Mattingly, an SDSU emeritus professor of women's studies, assigned the state audit about sexual violence on campuses to her 2014 class. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

For decades, San Diego State embodied the stereotype of a fun-loving, party school with an underside of sexual violence. The school's national reputation led to a ranking by Playboy magazine as one of the nation's top party schools.

"We had so little programming around sexual violence before the audit," said Doreen Mattingly, an emeritus professor of women's studies at San Diego State. "Students didn't know where to report. They didn't know what the reporting process was."

Mattingly said there was no anti-sexual violence training of students or employees, no training on how to step in when seeing assault or harassment, and no adequate support groups for survivors. She said there was much more sexual violence than was being tallied in official reports.

San Diego State's 2020 safety report recorded seven incidents of rape and no reported dating violence incidents in 2019. In 2017, there were 10 rape incidents reported and six dating violence incidents reported to the university.

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Queena Tran is a San Diego State graduate. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Mattingly saw the audit's magnifying-glass attention on her school's shortcomings as an opportunity. She assigned the 113-page report as required reading for some of her undergraduates.

"We chose to read the entire audit and push the university to do more," said Queena Tran, a student in Mattingly's upper division women's studies course. Seated beside her in the class was Nassim Moallem.

"I was already fairly involved on campus with various women's organizations" when the audit came out, Moallem said.

Tran confirmed that.

"She is the person who has the microphone pretty much at every protest" she said.

The audit opened their eyes to a long list of systemic problems on their campus.

"I think we really wanted a resource center dedicated to this issue," Moallem said. "We wanted more staff. The Title IX officers, we had our problems with them but then we realized they are just overworked. We wanted more Title IX officers, we wanted more support, we wanted community collaborations with nonprofit organizations in San Diego that do great work."

Their efforts helped lead the university to expand the Take Back The Night sexual violence program to a weeklong program. And both students, along with others, lobbied for the expansion and funding of the campus Women's Resource Center to offer support for victims and training to try to counter sexual violence.

"It's not enough to just counsel victims. You need to make sure nobody is being sexually assaulted or raped in the first place," Moallem said.

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A student walks around the Aztec Student Union at San Diego State. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

San Diego State administrators said that collaboration was key.

"If part of hearing from them includes them criticizing some of the things that they feel that we're doing or not doing, we need to hear that," said Jessica Rentto, SDSU's Associate Vice President of Administration and the Title IX coordinator, "because that's the only way that we can really improve is to find out, what are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? What are our blind spots?"

At UCLA, Knittig's frustration that information about sexual violence wasn't readily available to her on campus led her to co-found a non-profit called Sexual Assault and Violence Empowerment.

"I work with elementary school students right now," she said. "And something I'm noticing is that at an early age I was never really taught boundaries... you don't have to start by having conversations about sex and sexual relations, you have to start having conversations about understanding your own boundaries in your space."

DATA IS KEY TO ADDRESSING THE ISSUE OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Since 2014, three of the four universities investigated by the state auditor have conducted campus surveys focused on sexual violence. San Diego State has conducted three such surveys since 2015. UC Berkeley and Chico State each conducted one survey of its students and employees in 2018. UCLA has not.

"UCLA is open to the possibility of utilizing a campuswide survey as we discuss best practices for addressing concerns, including sexual violence and harassment and other forms of prohibited conduct under Title IX," university spokesman Vasquez said in an email.

In 2014, all UC campuses carried out campus surveys that took on a wide range of topics. One question on the survey polled students about whether they had experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in the previous five years. The survey found that 3% of UCLA students had experienced such an incident.

But that data point isn't enough to know how big the problem is at UCLA. National research suggests that more than one in five students experienced an incident of sexual assault since entering college.

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The UCLA campus. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

"Doing a [sexual violence] campus climate survey is actually what is the first step recommended in terms of doing a comprehensive approach to sexual violence prevention on college campuses," Wagman said.

Carrying out the survey is a double-edged sword, Wagman said, because the resulting data reveals the prevalence and details of sexual violence on a campus, which is good for people who want to stop these acts but that data can be seen as bad for public relations.

"It's one of the main reasons that college administrators, I think, are really reluctant to do the survey, because yeah, nobody wants to be known as, you know, the rape campus capital of the United States," Wagman said.

It's imperative to have nuanced violence prevention programs at each campus, she said, because sexual violence on college campuses is a public health issue.

"Experiencing sexual assault in particular, is associated with significantly increased risks for physical health outcomes, including migraines and headaches, psychological outcomes, such as anxiety and depression," Wagman said.

USC is not included in the state audit because it is not a public university, but it has a conducted its own survey on sexual abuse. It paints a troubling picture of the frequency of college sexual violence.

The survey found that 31% of undergraduate women at USC had been a victim of non-consensual sexual contact, ranging from kissing to penetration. Nearly 22% of LGBTQ students said they'd gone through these kinds of incidents.

USC's survey suggested there was a significant mistrust of the administration.

"Students were asked if they believe that campus officials would conduct a fair investigation in response to a report of sexual assault or other misconduct. Overall, 45.9 percent indicated that it is very or extremely likely that the investigation would be fair," USC's survey found.

SACRAMENTO HASN'T PASSED RECOMMENDED LAWS

Two years after the audit the State Assembly and Senate sent AB 1778 to the governor to address some of the audit's recommendations. It would have compelled public and private colleges and universities to conduct training of employees on sexual violence every year. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it.

"College campuses are already required to have clear policies and procedures to deal with these reports. The state, in this case, should not have to additionally mandate an annual training schedule for all college employees," Brown said in his veto statement.

If Brown would have signed the bill into law, it may have addressed what appear to be patchwork approaches at universities to frequently train employees.

UCLA and UC Riverside require employees to take the sexual violence training every two years. LA City College employees take the training every year. CSU Long Beach requires employees to take the training each year but CSUN says that after employees are hired and take initial sexual harassment training, refresher training on harassment happens every two years but training to identify and prevent sexual violence is required each year.

"We have worked closely with our partners at higher education, held hearings across college campuses, and introduced legislation tackling these issues. While much work remains to be done, this work is a step in the right direction to address these critical issues," Assemblymember Jose Medina said by email.