Individual case prompts full compliance review by Office of Civil Rights
THE SANTA CLARA
October 13, 2016
After receiving a complaint from an individual who was dissatisfied with how the university handled their sexual assault case, the U.S. Department of Education opened its own independent investigation. As of August, Santa Clara is one of 209 postsecondary institutions being reviewed by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), a sub-agency of the department.
“I think the investigation is great,” said Paulina Cheves, who serves on the executive board of the Violence Prevention Program (VPP). “It shows us and all the other schools that are on the list (that they need to) take sexual assault seriously.”
The investigation, which was officially opened on Nov. 24, 2015, reaches well-beyond the single case which initiated it. According to Belinda Guthrie, the university’s Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) and Title IX coordinator, her office was required to submit thousands of documents as part of a complete compliance review of reporting and prevention methods. Due to confidentiality concerns, neither OCR nor the Office of EEO and Title IX are at liberty to disclose any specific details related to the case that initiated the investigation.
Included in the trove of documents submitted to OCR in late January 2016 was information specific to the case that initiated the investigation, documentation of the university’s sexual misconduct policy and four years of recent data. According to Guthrie, it has been the norm since around 2011 for OCR to require institutions under investigation to turn over such an extensive amount of documentation.
“I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing,” Guthrie said. “Santa Clara is learning from this process.”
In May of this year, representatives from OCR came to campus as part of their investigation. They spent three days meeting with Campus Safety, EEO and Title IX staff, the Office of Student Life (OSL) and the Sexual Misconduct Board. They also conducted student focus groups and held open office hours, giving members of the campus community the opportunity to discuss the campus climate surrounding sexual assault.
Cheves, along with other VPP executive board member Emma Hyndman, are particularly knowledgeable about sexual assault on campus. Their student group, housed under the Wellness Center, focuses its efforts on sexual assault prevention, education and bystander intervention awareness. Just in the last two years alone, the combination of their efforts and the hiring of VPP’s new staff coordinator Gillian Cutshaw has led to a proliferation of sexual assault awareness and prevention programming.
“I think that (sexual assault at Santa Clara) is certainly a problem,” Cutshaw said. “I think it happens more than people want to admit. Alcohol and our drinking culture has a huge role to play as does the lack of a consent culture.”
On Oct. 1, the university released its Annual Security and Fire Safety Report (ASR) which includes a comprehensive list of all reported crimes—including all incidents of sexual violence. The initial report, sent in a campuswide email, failed to include the number of rapes that occurred during the 2015 calendar year.
According to Hyndman and Cheves, the mistake was quickly recognized by students involved with Feminists for Justice and Together for Ladies of Color, who mobilized quickly and flooded the inbox of Bridget Colbert, the university’s assistant general counsel.
“It’s frustrating that we have to police the school’s General Counsel and Campus Safety and Title IX,” Hyndman said. “It’s also very offensive to survivors who actually have the courage to report.”
Colbert said in an email that the oversight was a “compiling error,” because statistics in the report are gathered from “multiple sources.” She added that new practices have been implemented to prevent any similar errors in the future
According to the updated ASR, sent out by Colbert in a second campus-wide email, there were only four reported rapes at Santa Clara between Jan. 1, 2015 and Dec. 31, 2015—all of which occurred in on-campus residential facilities. In the same time frame, there were three reported instances of fondling, two reported instances of dating violence and two reported instances of stalking.
Compared to the widely accepted national statistics that one in five women and one in 16 men experience sexual assault while in college, the recently-released data indicates that Santa Clara’s rate of sexual assault is less than one percent.
“I don’t think those numbers reflect what’s actually happening here,” Hyndman said. “But if four people walked into (the Office of Student Life) all year, I would also believe that.”
Though Cheves and Hyndman expressed skepticism about the low numbers in the recently-released ASR, they cited multiple reasons for possible discrepancies. Among them were failure to recognize an incident as sexual assault, confusion surrounding mandated reporting and ease of filing an official complaint.
In regard to the problem of underreporting, Cutshaw said that it is important for students to trust the system. She added that when the official numbers go up, it is not necessarily because of a jump in assaults, but rather students’ increased confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously by administrators.
“When schools have no reports of sexual assault or maybe one this year and then two the next year, it worries me,” Cutshaw said. “You know that they’re going on, it’s just that the students don’t feel safe to come forward.”
Pages 21 through 23 of the ASR contain information about resources for victims of sexual assault as well as what preventative programs are available on-campus. With the exception of Cowell Health Center, which provides support through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the VPP is the only other on-campus resource for students.
“VPP can’t do it all. Even if we had funding, the people, we just can’t do it all,” Cheves said. “Everyone has to be on the same page.”
Guthrie said that developments in the last year, including a switch to a “more robust system” to track data, are one way in which the university has evolved to changing campus needs. Additionally, the Office of EEO and Title IX, which has only been in existence since fall of 2014, has already seen increases in its annual budget. Guthrie added that her office works directly with VPP, the Wellness Center and OSL on sexual assault-related issues.
“(Members of the) administration are very enthusiastic and open to helping and supporting our work, which I think is great,” Hyndman said. “I think it’s more that there are a lot of bureaucratic barriers and too many moving parts that get stuck.”
The latest reported numbers on OCR’s close rate suggest that the campus community should not expect to see any results from their probe in the immediate future. In 2015, it took OCR an average of 940 days to close sexual violence investigations at postsecondary institutions. So though the investigation has been open for almost one calendar year, it could continue to stay open for another year to year and a half.
“While OCR’s goal is to resolve all complaints within 180 days, sexual violence investigations tend to be complex and may involve systemic, campus- and institution-wide issues, in addition to issue pertaining to specific students,” wrote assistant secretary for civil rights Catherine Lhamon in a 2015 letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Guthrie said she hopes that OCR’s investigation will not discourage anyone from reporting a sexual assault.
In the meantime, prevention efforts by the VPP are going fullsteam ahead. The group continues to do outreach in residence halls, hold bystander intervention training and increase their reach to more students living off campus. For the month of October, they are aligning their programming in observance of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“The momentum has not stopped. If anything, it’s growing exponentially,” Cheves said. “I hope that after we leave, people higher up in the administration get more involved and more supportive of what we do.”
Contact Jenni Sigl at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.