Federal Complaints Say Occidental College Failed to Protect Students from Sexual Assault

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A group of Occidental College students and faculty are turning to outside forces to impel their college to reform its policy and process for addressing sexual assault.

The Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition – having spent years documenting an unjust and illegal process – has submitted two complaints to the federal government: (1) a Title IX complaint with the Office for Civil Rights arguing that Occidental is a hostile environment for women and (2) an argument that the college is in violation of the Clery Act, which requires timely and accurate reporting of crimes on campus.  In addition, civil rights attorney Gloria Allred has agreed to represent several students in a lawsuit against the college.  

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Students at UC Irvine attending an annual event to raise awareness about sexual violence and to honor survivors of sexual violence and assault. (Image: © Christine Cotter/The Orange County Register/ZUMAPRESS.com/

I am a faculty member at Occidental College.  In this post I describe what’s happening, why, what I expect the backlash to look like, and what I hope will come of this.

What’s happening?

One in four college-age women will experience rape or attempted rape. In the U.S.,college attendance is a risk factor for sexual assault.  The majority of sexual violence – against both men and women — is committed by a small group of men.  Accordingly, it is imperative to identify men responsible for sexual assaults and remove them from their “target-rich” environment.

Institutions of higher education, unfortunately, have a perverse incentive to suppress reports of sexual assault and discourage adjudication.  Administrators know that students may be dissuaded from attending schools that have a reputation for a high rate of sexual assault, so these numbers are suppressed all across higher education in America.

Occidental College is no exception.

After nearly five years of attempting to work with the administration, and facing deliberate indifference, the coalition decided to turn to the federal government for help, hence the complaints.

In the meantime, and separately from the coalition’s efforts, sexual assault survivors and their families decided to seek legal counsel. 

Why is Occidental College being sued and reported to the federal government?

Allred’s cases against the college will likely focus on the alleged illegal and unjust treatment of students who report sexual assault by other students.  Incidences of sexual assault have been hidden from the college community; students have been discouraged from reporting to both the college and the police and from proceeding with adjudication; students found responsible for sexual assault have been allowed to appeal without grounds; sanctions have frequently been lessened on appeal; there has been harassment of and retaliation against survivors and their allies; and Occidental has let at least three men found responsible for more than one assault back on campus after their victims have graduated, exposing a new crop of women to a known predator.

The coalition filing federal reports has been pleading with the administration to bring its programming, policy, and process in line with the law and the best practices scholarship.  Their solution to the administration’s failure is to turn to the government.

What will the backlash look like?

If Occidental follows the pattern of previous institutions, we will see at least three phenomena.

First, known coalition members, survivors, and their allies will be blamed for harming the reputation of Occidental and putting it at risk of legal sanctions and fines. This will be ironic because it is, of course, rapists, their apologists, and incompetent and corrupt administrators that are to blame.  They’re responsible for the harm done

to individual survivors and any harm that comes to the institution.

It will be difficult to keep this in mind, but we must.

Second, in an effort to save their jobs and reputations, administrators will try to divide and conquer the college community.  While the college has insurance to cover fines and legal payouts, the administration will likely claim financial hardship and make painful changes (e.g., freeze hiring or cut programs and salaries).  They will engage in the blaming behavior described above to suggest that survivors and their allies are responsible for the hardship that comes with a high-profile scandal.  They will attempt to turn the faculty against each other, and the faculty against the administration, with a focus on stoking resentment against the faculty on the front lines of this fight.  The faculty members in the coalition will likely pay a high price for their commitment to making Occidental a safer and fairer place.

Finally, women on campus will be targeted for retaliation. All women – not just survivors and their allies – will be fair game for insults, harassment, threats, and violence.  Serial rapists are sociopaths and they do not like to be told that they’re not allowed to rape. While the vast majority of male students at Occidental are wonderful people, a handful of very scary men on campus feel entitled to sexual access to women’s bodies. They will interpret the complaints and lawsuits as an attack on their freedom to do what they want to women.  And they will fight back.  Because they see all women as essentially the same, all women will potentially be subject to their outrage.

In other words, their unquestioned power and privilege is being challenged, and they may react with symbolic or physical violence.

What good can come of this?

I am extraordinarily hopeful about the long-term outcome of these lawsuits and complaints.

Of course, I want the students at my institution to get justice, as much as that is possible.  But I also believe that we're at a tipping point.  We’re following in the footsteps of Amherst, UNC, and Yale; together we will be part of the first wave. There will be a second.  There will be waves of institutions brought into the light, as lawsuits and complaints expose a nationwide cover-up of sexual misconduct and assault at college campuses.

In the wake of these scandals, we will begin a new era of sexual assault programming, policy, and adjudication.  In this new era, colleges will heed the word of the Office for Civil Rights and consider all instances of sexual assault a threat to equal access to education for women.

In this era, we will no longer live in a world in which going to college increases one’s risk of sexual assault, in which administrations promote rape myths and stoke rape culture, in which reporting a sexual crime exposes you to further trauma and betrayal.  It’s going to be a better world.  And we’re going to look back at when parents routinely sent their children off to rape-prone environments and be stunned.  We’re going to remember a time in which we allowed serial rapists to thrive and be disgusted.  We’re going to remember how institutions treated victims of sexual assault and be flabbergasted that we allowed such a thing.

I think. I hope.

I want this to be the tipping point.  And I’m very sorry that Occidental has to be a part of it, because I absolutely adore my little school.  But it’s exactly because we are a special place, with such brave students and principled faculty, that we will be on the frontlines of this change.  We won’t be alone.  We're linking hands with brave students and principled faculty all across America; we'll take the fire together, for the greater

good.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the principle writer for Sociological Images. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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