Panel: Colleges fall short with sex assault investigations

A panel of Bay Area experts offered their expertise and experiences with the U.S. Department of Education’s enforcement of Title IX compliance and sexual assault investigations on college campuses Tuesday, with some expressing their concern regarding whether fair processes are in place to protect both the victim and the accused.

Kendra Fox-Davis, an attorney with the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, noted that today there are about three times the complaints, roughly 10,000 a year, coming in to the Office of Civil Rights regarding sexual violence on campuses in comparison to the 1980s, yet roughly half the staff to handle the complaints.

Fox-Davis said she hopes there will be greater resources and staffing devoted to assessing campus cultures to ensure that colleges are proactively partaking in cultural changes. She said it’s imperative that schools educate students about sexual consent and reporting sexual abuse.

She said her job is to investigate civil rights complaints at institutions that receive federal financial assistance and then enforce the laws, including Title IX.

The department’s Office of Civil Rights investigates and resolves complaints alleging sex discrimination. It also conducts proactive investigations, called compliance reviews, to examine potential systemic violations. The office provides technical assistance and guidance to schools, universities and other agencies to assist them in voluntary compliance with the law as well.

She said she hopes the Office of Civil rights can work more closely with educators to encourage curriculums that include explanations of boundaries, especially regarding students with disabilities.

Denise Oldham, a Title IX coordinator at the University of California and the director of the Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination at UC Berkeley, said that the university is in the process of implementing a comprehensive approach to addressing sexual violence on their campuses, including the creation of a confidential student advocate and support office on each campus.

The university is expected to be a model for the country in handling sexual assault complaints by January 2016, Oldham said.

Oldham said the university’s sexual abuse complaint handling is under review as a result of “survivors who felt that everyone was missing the mark.”

Criminal defense attorney Dan Roth said he agrees that campus handlings of sexual assault complaints fall short. He said the accused aren’t allowed basic rights, which they would be afforded in a criminal preceding, such as their right to council.

Roth said handling of the complaints at the campus level ignores centuries of legal precedent that is used everyday in the court of law, yet still requires evidence, such as forensics, interviews, and communication, to be obtained, which takes time and money.

He said the campus review of sexual assault complaints have “serious complications vis-à-vis criminal proceedings.” Roth said as an attorney he can support his clients, but cannot speak during proceedings. He said even though the campus proceedings are not criminal proceedings, they have the power to damage the accused persons “identity in the public eye,” yet lack many of the protections of a court of law.

Jill Habig, a special assistant attorney general in the Executive Office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris said she has carefully watched the intersection of campus processes and criminal proceedings, and has noticed a lot of confusion about the interplay between the two.

She said campus hearings cannot determine whether a person is guilty of a crime.

More needs to be done to ensure that potential victims of sexual abuse on campuses are given immediate access to medical exams, rape kits and evidence collection, Habig said.

Roth said he wants to see mandatory sexual education training during orientation for all students beginning college on consent and sexual assault reporting.

He said the reality is that we live in a country where many teenagers learn abstinence only and as a result, “kids are unsophisticated about sex” and need education and training on consent.

Oldham said that while not all universities are adopting such policies, incoming students at the University of California would be required to undergo training on sexual violence prevention, policies, reporting and support.