Sexual assault, a volatile issue on Occidental’s campus for the past year, made headlines when President Barack Obama created a national sexual assault task force in January. Occidental also made national press when the school’s anonymous sexual assault report form was spammed with fake reports. In a continuing effort to address this issue, the college has hired an outside public relations firm and has also applied for a grant from the Department of Justice (DOJ) to combat sexual assault on campus.
During winter break, Occidental’s anonymous sexual assault report forum was spammed with over 400 reports from an outside source, some claiming to be men’s rights advocates, according to Director of Communications Jim Tranquada and The L.A. Times. Newspapers and websites across the country covered the influx.
To handle the increase in media attention as a result of this issue, Occidental hired public relations firm G.F. Bunting & Co. to work on media relations, according to Tranquada.
“The level of media interest in the issue of sexual misconduct is such that our small staff needs help to ensure our regular work of promoting the college, including the work of faculty and students, doesn’t suffer,” Tranquada said. “The college often hires consultants in a variety of areas when the need arises, given that most offices have lean staffs.”
Lawyers Gina Smith and Leslie Gomez were hired last April to report on Occidental’s sexual misconduct policy and put an interim policy in place. The final report has yet to come out because they have been focused on putting an interim policy in place, according to Tranquada.
“We asked them last summer to create our interim policy that could be in place before school and to provide training for faculty and staff,” Tranquada said. “That just didn’t give them enough time to work on the report.”
Smith and Gomez’s work involved reviewing thousands of documents, including reports from the past two years. They also interacted with over 100 community members through interviews and online feedback. Smith and Gomez plan to talk with more of the campus community in order to gain a broader perspective before issuing their report.
“In synthesizing the information learned to date […] we felt that we were still missing some voices in the conversation,” Smith and Gomez said in an email statement. “Before completing our final report, we are taking an additional opportunity to invite Occidental community members to participate in our review.”
As Smith and Gomez finalize their review, the national Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and Department of Education (overseer of the Clery Act) are also reviewing the Occidental administration’s response to sexual misconduct.
The OCR investigates Title IX complaints. and its report will detail areas in which the school is non-compliant with Title IX rules. The office enters into an agreement with the school to fix those areas but does not fine schools for non-compliance. Tranquada said that the OCR report is the first of three reports the administration is expecting.
The Department of Education’s Clery Act relates to how quickly the school notifies students of potential danger in events like school shootings, inclement weather or other threatening situations. This department has the power to give fines. The earliest this report would be given to the school is next fall, according to Tranquada.
Despite the current investigations, Occidental applied for and received a $300,000 grant from the DOJ to tackle issues related to sexual assault on campus. Occidental is one of 38 schools to receive the grant.
“Grantees are required to use grant funds to create a Coordinated Community Response Team to support the coordination of response services among internal and external partners to reduce sexual assault,” Assistant Dean for Intercultural Affairs Paula Crisostomo, who helped author the grant proposal, said in an email.
Occidental’s external partners are Peace Over Violence, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. Members of Project S.A.F.E., Emmons, Residential Education, Intercultural Affairs, faculty members and Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones will serve on this response team. The response team will provide prevention and educational programming, similar to that in first-year orientation, to all campus community members. Students will also be given printed material on sexual assault.
Grant money will also enhance Campus Safety training.
“All Campus Safety officers will receive training on how to appropriately and sensitively take survivor statements, understand psychological reactions to trauma, how and when to refer to other resources, etc.,” Crisostomo said.
Crisostomo hopes to see the grant money go toward helping every member of Occidental become more educated and safe.
“My hope is that this grant will help the entire Oxy community focus on prioritizing safety and prevention,” Crisostomo said in an email. “While $300,000 is not nearly enough money to eliminate [this issue], it is a start to work towards reducing sexual assault, intimate partner violence, dating violence and stalking on our campus.”
During a community meeting on Feb. 4, President Jonathan Veitch acknowledged the effect that the conversation around sexual misconduct has had on the entire campus.
“I know the campus climate has been challenging for many of you. We care about these issues. We need to find ways to talk to each other, and we will. And we need to bridge the gap, or perceived gap, between faculty and staff, and we will do that, too,” Veitch said.
Veitch said that fundraising “has been less” in the last year “for obvious reasons” without detailing what the obvious reasons may be. He did not respond to an email asking for clarification.
Veitch also mentioned a number of measures the school has taken to address sexual assault on campus. At orientation, first-years are given four hours of sexual assault education – an increase from previous years – and many of Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition’s (OSAC) demands were incorporated into the new policy. Additionally, available resources have been enhanced with the addition of a sexual assault survivor advocate, Naddia Palacios, and the Title IX coordinator, Jones.
Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) introduced a bill on Jan. 6 that would change standards for colleges and universities in reporting violent crimes. The bill was largely a response to reports that schools, including Occidental and University of Southern California (USC), did not accurately report on-campus sexual assaults as required by federal law. The bill would require schools to report crimes to local law enforcement agencies for investigation unless the survivor elects not to report.
“What helps those victims is the crime actually being investigated by a competent law enforcement agency,” Gatto said in an L.A. Times article.
Jones said that the bill does not change much about the current policy in place at Occidental.
“On its face, the bill just adds another reporting facet to current policy,” she said. “What we need to figure out is how it would be in practice. The question is, when in the process would it be reported to law enforcement?”
Also under discussion is bill AB 1498, by Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose). The bill gives judges the ability to grant restraining orders to survivors of sex crimes, without the necessitating that the survivor give testimony.
In the United States
Obama announced the creation of a federal task force to review college sexual assault and policy in January. Many sexual assault activists are excited to see this issue brought to a national stage.
There were 30 Title IX complaints regarding sexual violence in 2013, according to The L.A. Times. Obama credited such “student-led activism” with bringing the issue to the forefront of conversation. In the speech, Obama also said to survivors: “We have your back.”
Politics Department Chair and sexual assault activist Caroline Heldman helped students file a lawsuit against Occidental last semester. OSAC, of which Heldman is a founding member, has openly criticized the Occidental administration’s handling of the sexual assault cases on campus.
“For the first time in the history of the long anti-rape struggle, President Obama has made the prevention of campus sexual assault a national policy priority,” Heldman said in an email. “With this task force and the force of his office, the President changed the course of sexual violence on campus. Much work remains to be done to see best practices developed and implemented, but the good news is that this issue can no longer be denied, ignored or deceptively spun by campus administrators.”
[…] Last month Occidental College retained the crisis PR firm of G.F. Buntink & Co. to assist with media relations spotlighting this […]