On July 26, Provost and Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Elizabeth Garrett sent a letter to the University of Southern California student body regarding the recent investigation led by the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) into USC’s compliance with federal Title IX laws requiring the protection of students from sexual and gender-based hostility and violence. The investigation was launched in response to a complaint prepared by the Student Coalition Against Rape (SCAR) on behalf of multiple students who have experienced such violence at USC.
SCAR finds the Provost’s letter encouraging, as it marks the reopening of a forgotten dialogue between student survivors and allies and university administrators on the issue of sexual violence. While it does not address many of the serious issues our coalition has raised, the letter proposes several reforms to improve the university’s treatment of sexual misconduct, including the employment of an additional specialist to address sexual misconduct cases and the expansion of training programs for students, employees, and Department of Public safety officers on the prevention of sexual crime. While not mentioned in the letter, USC has also updated the DPS website with more thorough information on acquaintance rape and reporting a sexual crime. These reforms constitute the university’s most thorough response to this issue in years.
Many times in the university’s recent history, student groups like SCAR have emerged, to advocate for increased protection of students from sexual misconduct. In 2011, the SAFER Campus Coalition was formed in response to a viral email written by a member of USC’s Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter and advocating rape. While USC made minor updates to their policies and publications on sexual misconduct, efforts at more comprehensive reform were abandoned following the graduation of SAFER’s leadership.
In light of multiple survivors coming forward and asserting that their assaults were not appropriately handled by USC, SCAR approached the university in the spring of 2013, asking—again—for the comprehensive reform SAFER had demanded two years prior. After individual appeals were repeatedly ignored, SCAR organized a demonstration on campus demanding accountability for sexual misconduct and delivered letters to four different administrators outlining specific policy reforms to ensure Title IX compliance. SCAR was never contacted by any member of the administration with a response to our stated demands, despite our explicit request for a response.
In May of 2013, the complaint was filed with OCR on behalf of 13 named and 3 unnamed survivors of sexual violence while students at USC. As SCAR has previously stated, the complaint was found by the OCR to warrant a general investigation into the university’s procedures in the cases of sexual misconduct. So far, 3 of the complainant’s cases have also been accepted by the OCR for individual investigation. Other cases have not been accepted because they fall outside a time statute of 180 days or because they contain violations that are not explicitly specified under the limited accountability offered by the federal government—not, as the Provost’s letter suggests, because these allegations were found to be untrue. The OCR has stated that they do not have jurisdiction to respond to some of the cases cited, however this does not take diminish the veracity of the remaining claims, nor the weight of the injustices outlined.
The Provost states in her letter that certain statements by DPS officers regarding the accepted cases have been mischaracterized by the press. Since the university statement to the community was released, our Office for Civil Rights investigator has confirmed, “USC has not received any documents or information from our office other than OCR’s official correspondence notifying it of the allegations under investigation.” Therefore, the university is not able to make claims regarding the veracity of our claims: they do not know the extent or context of our claims, even though some of the claims have been publicized. It is deeply disturbing that USC, which claims to be deeply concerned with student safety would choose to overlook student concerns that the school’s security officers are not meeting basic responsibilities.
In addition to 16 individual cases, comments from more than 80 students who responded to an anonymous survey circulated in May of 2013 were also included in the complaint in order to paint a more complete picture of the living and learning environment at USC.
While we cannot make the details of these comments public, we can share that they provide valuable input regarding the following four areas of concern:
· The inadequacy of USC’s orientation program on sexual assault;
· USC’s failure to adequately inform students of their rights in cases of sexual misconduct;
· Students’ lack of comfort and/or confidence in reporting an attack to the authorities and resources set up on USC’s campus; and,
· An overall feeling of vulnerability to sexual or gender-based hostility within the USC community
These statements have helped to display that USC has much room for improvement in educating students and in responding to sexual misconduct. SCAR does not feel that the OCR’s decision not to pursue individual investigations of these statements is an adequate reason to dismiss, as the Provost’s letter has done, the input of more than 80 students on gender-based hostility and sexual violence at USC. In fact, we would expect that USC take the opportunity to thoroughly review these comments in order to help identify and address the community’s specific needs.
It was stated in the Provost’s letter that USC is a “national leader in procedures to deal with sexual violence and sexual harassment.” SCAR is asking that the university stand by this statement. SCAR’s actions are motivated exclusively by the desire to make our university a safer and more inclusive space for all students, a goal the university has claimed to share. In the coming months, SCAR will continue to raise awareness about sexual violence on USC’s campus and to document individual instances where such violence does not receive due attention, in the hopes of advancing this goal and of generating practical solutions to make it more attainable. It is our greatest wish that USC’s administration recognize the critical importance of student input in addressing this ongoing issue so that our campus can truly be “free of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and violence, and supportive of those affected.”