In “The Trouble with Oxy,” which appears in the February issue of Los Angeles (on newsstands now), Mona Gable writes about the turmoil at Occidental College over the school’s handling of sexual assaults. Two federal complaints were lodged and Gloria Allred began representing several students over the issue. As Gable writes, the pressure from activists coincided with the school’s move to improve the process and hopefully reduce the number of assaults, but for many involved there will be long-lasting collateral damage. Executive editor Matthew Segal speaks with Gable about the story.
When the initial story about Oxy broke—news that sexual assault complaints from students had been allegedly mishandled by the school’s administration—had you been very plugged into the topic yet?
I’d actually been following the topic for some time because of my interests in women’s issues.
So you’d been reporting on this story for how long before we went to press?
I started in March 2013, when I heard there was going to be a town hall meeting on campus about sexual assault. Students were starting to get increasingly vocal and upset about the problem, and they turned out in huge numbers for that event. Oxy’s in my neighborhood and I have several friends who either went there or sent their kids there. I wanted to see how the college was handling the controversy.
Oxy isn’t exactly a large school; it has only about 2,100 students. And it’s not exactly a party school. So the number of federal complaints lodged against the school—it reached 52—seems extraordinarily high.
The reason it was so high is directly because of the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition. The group really educated the students about their legal rights and encouraged them to pressure the school to get serious about changing its policies and the way it handled cases. Some of those complaints were also from faculty and staff, who believed the school had retaliated against them for their activism.
Retaliated in what way?
Some faculty members who were fighting to improve Oxy’s policies had their offices broken into, for instance, and some employees believed they were denied jobs they wanted because of their activism.
Professors there played a prominent role in the debate over and fallout from the issue on campus. How large is the faculty at Oxy?
There are about 178 full-time faculty members.
And about how many people would you say you’d spoken to overall for this piece?
I probably spoke to at least 40 people, including students, faculty, and staff at other schools around the country who were grappling with the issue.
Your piece cites professors who have been especially involved, but how would you characterize the sentiments of professors overall regarding the school’s handling of sexual assault claims?
I’d say the faculty as a whole was really shocked and dismayed over the way their students had been treated when they tried to report. They also were incredibly committed to doing something about it.
You detail some students’ experiences with the reporting. You also describe how the faculty gave a no-confidence vote for Barbara Avery, the dean of students, who essentially oversaw the process. Of course, faculties tend to be rife with politics. Why would such a vote be a big deal?
Because it really expressed the faculty’s complete lack of confidence in how the administration was treating these serious crimes. Professor Tinberg, the head of the faculty who’s been at Oxy for more than 30 years, told me that the vote was, and I quote, “not taken lightly and continues to resonate on campus.”
We should back up for a second and explain the difference between a Title IX complaint and a Clery Act complaint, since both had been lodged against the school.
Sure. Title IX is the 1972 civil rights law prohibiting gender discrimination in education. Though many people associate it with ensuring equal access to sports, the law also requires schools to take steps against rape and sexual assault. Many of the survivors I spoke with, for instance, talked about the difficulties they faced just going to class and keeping up their grades because their attackers were still on campus. So essentially they were being discriminated against. The Clery Act requires schools to keep track of crimes that occur on campus.
And how does the process work in terms of the federal government arriving at a conclusion?
The federal government does its own investigation. The process is confidential, but they do come to campus and talk to people as part of it. Typically it seems these investigations take at least a couple of years, if not longer.
Of course, Oxy is just one of many schools that have been involved in the matter of sexual assaults and how administrations handle them. Why do you think so many schools have struggled with this? Surely they can’t all be indifferent.
They weren’t prepared for it and they didn’t have the right policies or people in place to address these crimes. I hate to say it, but I also think there was a profound level of ignorance among college leaders about rape and sexual assault. I think a lot of them just thought it was a matter of drunken miscommunication between students. But I also think many school officials didn’t believe the victims, or want to.
In part, you’re getting at the role of alcohol in all of this: Drinking is often involved in campus sexual assaults, and binge drinking on campuses is supposed to be up—a scary notion, given how much drinking there’s always been at college—so do you think that has something to do with the emergence of this as a nationwide story?
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I don’t have an answer. I do believe that the rise of binge drinking has allowed people to use it as a scapegoat for sexual assault. “Oh, if only she hadn’t been drunk, she wouldn’t have been raped.” Do we say that about any other crime? It also belies the truth about the majority of young men who commit these rapes and sexual assaults and use alcohol to disarm their victims.
Where is the demarcation between basic law and campus regulation? Meaning, why do you think police agencies aren’t more involved, especially after a student has been found responsible for a sexual assault?
As strange as it seems, sexual assaults are handled under a school’s code of conduct. The police don’t get involved unless a student decides to file a report, and the majority, for various reasons, don’t.
Which is something else you get at in the piece. As for the students and former students you spoke to, do you get the sense they are satisfied if not with the treatment they initially received than with the direction that the administration of Jonathan Veitch has gone in to improve its handling of complaints?
I talked with a student leader, a senior who’s in a good position to take the temperature of the students, about this. I asked her, now that the president has made all these changes in Oxy’s sexual assault policies, do students trust him? “No,” she said.
What about the faculty?
Although they’re grateful for the changes, I think many of them are still wary because of what happened in the past. A lot will depend on the new Title IX coordinator, Ruth Jones, and other new staff, and whether they can convince students that they’ll be treated with fairness and sensitivity.
You have a daughter who recently graduated. Has reporting on this piece changed the way you would have advised her back when she was headed off to the dorm for the first time?
We did talk a lot before she went off to college, but it’s so hard. Most of the responsibility to prevent rape has centered on young women. One mom I interviewed whose daughter was raped by a guy who spiked her drink said she had warned her daughter before college to not take a drink from anyone. That’s typical. So are we going to tell young women not to go to parties? To never drink? I think we need to put more of an emphasis on educating our sons about sexual assault and to be more active in preventing it. Here’s one thing I would do now if I were a parent of a freshman, something that I didn’t do: I’d read everything I could about how that particular school handled sexual assaults. Did the school have a good record and a Title IX office? Did they have a strong orientation program on sexual assault education for freshmen? What kind of counseling services and other help to victims did they provide? Those were the kinds of things I would have looked into.