Not so long ago, a young woman raped in her dorm room or a bathroom at a fraternity party wouldn’t have said a word. She certainly wouldn’t have told a dean or her roommate, knowing they probably wouldn’t believe her. She might have told herself that it wasn’t really rape, that she’d misunderstood. She might have reasoned that it was no big deal, just part of the normal college “experience.” Or that it was her fault. Sexual assault, after all, didn’t happen to smart girls.
In reality at least 6 in every 1,000 women will be sexually assaulted during college, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, yet only 20 percent of victims ever report it. And those who do speak up have often seen their efforts amount to nothing, failed by the schools they trusted to protect them.
Over the past three years, campuses from Brown and Harvard to UC Berkeley and USC have been thrown into tumult as students have demanded change and used federal laws to compel schools to act. As I write this, 91 colleges and universities across the country are being investigated under Title IX, the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in schools, for mishandling cases of rape and sexual assault. Many institutions are also being scrutinized under the Clery Act, which requires schools to disclose crimes on or near campus. The 1991 law is named after Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered by a sophomore in the spring of her freshman year.
At Columbia University Emma Sulkowicz, a senior, galvanized the movement in September 2014 when she began lugging around campus the dorm mattress on which a male student allegedly raped her. Sulkowicz didn’t get justice—in the vernacular of campus sexual assault, administrators found her attacker “not responsible.” He remains in school. So to protest, she has pledged to carry her mattress until he’s expelled. On October 29, inspired by Sulkowicz, students at 130 campuses around the world, including UCLA, marched in #CarryThatWeight, holding aloft their own bedding to support survivors of sexual assault.
Just days before, at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, nearly 150 students walked out of classes over the treatment of a freshman who’d reported being raped. During the investigation, school officials asked her a barrage of questions: How short was her dress? How frequently did she party? How was it possible the perpetrator, a male student, had raped her orally?
One school that attracted the earliest national attention, though, was the small campus of Occidental College in the northeast L.A. neighborhood of Eagle Rock. In April 2013, Oxy was hit with two federal complaints: One accused the school of mishandling 37 incidents of sexual violence under Title IX (the number would climb to 52); the other, of failing to report sexual assaults under the Clery Act. Until then, many Angelenos knew of the campus only because President Obama had been a student there for two years.
In the months that followed, the private liberal arts college descended into turmoil, with students, faculty, and alumni assailing Oxy president Jonathan Veitch for his administration’s apathy and incompetence. But eventually the movement itself began to fray, with tensions tearing at the faculty. Since the initial story broke two years ago, Veitch has indeed tried to reform the school’s handling of sexual assault claims, but with alienated faculty and distrustful students, Oxy’s troubles aren’t over yet.
On the morning of April 18, 2013, Danielle Dirks gathered with a group of Occidental College students in her Highland Park bungalow. A 35-year-old assistant professor, Dirks has been teaching sociology at the campus since 2011; she’d invited the students over for breakfast and a pep talk before driving to the Mid City offices of attorney Gloria Allred. Five of the young women were being represented by Allred as she sought redress from the school; they were also part of the Title IX complaint that had been filed that morning. Soon they’d be in a press conference, disclosing their stories of being sexually assaulted. A few sat at Dirks’s kitchen table, having their makeup done, as another student painted their nails with the Title IX symbol. Three of the young women had brought their mothers.
Caroline Heldman, a 42-year-old associate professor of politics, was there as well. “We filed at 2 a.m.!” she said, referring to the Title IX complaint she and Dirks had lodged against Oxy, high-fiving the students around her. Heldman writes about campus rape culture along with topics like sexual objectification for Ms. magazine and on her blog, Coffee at Midnight. A leader in the battle to reform the school’s policies, she’s been working on the issue at Occidental since 2009 and helped found the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition, or OSAC, in 2012. She’s also a frequent guest on Fox News, where the striking blond was once called “Dr. McHottie” by a pundit.
Dirks emerged from the hallway. “I love you all! Thank you so much for being here and supporting each other!” she said in her high voice. Tall with long red hair and freckles, she became involved in the sexual assault issue when a student named Carly Mee confided in her. Other students would follow, bearing their stories of rape.
Shortly after noon, several of those students stood behind Allred as the 73-year-old media virtuoso sat at her conference table before a mass of cameras and reporters. Armored in her signature red jacket with gold buttons, Allred described the Title IX complaint against Oxy, ticking off the alleged violations, from rape to retaliation against those who’d spoken out. Then Allred delivered some more disturbing news. “The last reported rape occurred this last Friday night and was reported to police on Saturday and to Occidental College this past Sunday,” she said. The students learned about the alleged rape that night when a CBS2 news van rolled up on campus and a reporter began interviewing students. The incident had ignited a protest after Oxy failed to issue a campus alert because, Allred said, “according to Jonathan Veitch, ‘there was no ongoing danger of an unknown repeat offense because the student involved was immediately identified and interviewed by the police and by Student Affairs.’ ”
One by one, the young women read their statements. Some looked frightened. A few held hands. A freshman with freckles and wavy brown hair was on the verge of tears as she recalled her story. Once the media left, the students and Heldman sat around the conference table and ate lunch while their attorney told a story about a sex discrimination case she’d won. “Can you be our commencement speaker?” a senior asked. Allred wanted to know how they felt about the event.
“It’s been a really surreal day,” said one student.
“This is very empowering for me,” said another.
The talk continued along those lines until Allred realized I was still in the room. “This is just for the moms and students,” she said, frowning from across the table before asking me to leave.
Occidental College defines rape as the act of any kind of sexual penetration without a person’s consent. If a person is incapacitated—from alcohol or anything else—then the sex is not consensual. If students are reluctant to file reports with administrators, they’re even more unlikely to go to the police. One reason is because many colleges fail to tell them they have the option. Another is because they’re afraid the police won’t believe them, especially if they don’t report the attack right away. Others don’t want to go to the police because of the social consequences they face if their case becomes public.
The weekend after she began her freshman year at Occidental in 2010, Carly Mee was raped twice in her dorm room by the same student. A player on Oxy’s football team, he showed up at her room a week later and tried to force her to have sex again. After she repeatedly refused, he asked why, since they’d had sex before. But Mee had been drinking that first night and had no memory of it. When she insisted he was wrong, he laughed and relayed the details, continuing to try to rape her so she could “remember.” He stopped when she started crying and said she couldn’t breathe.
“I told someone right away,” Mee recalled, referring to a friend. “He told me I was stupid for letting this person in my room.” I met with her on a weekday morning in April 2013, shortly after she joined the Title IX complaint. We sat in a Starbucks in Highland Park. A senior nearing graduation, she was applying to law school and looked more like a job applicant than a student with her dress, makeup, and neatly brushed auburn hair. Initially Mee didn’t tell Oxy officials about her attack because she’d heard the judicial process was extremely “alienating” and “victim blaming.” As the months passed, she kept seeing her rapist everywhere—in the dining hall, in the dorm, at dances and parties. “He’d try to talk to me and follow me from room to room,” she said. But she still didn’t report him.
Then one night in the fall of her sophomore year, Mee was hanging out in a dorm room with other students when the name of her attacker came up in the conversation. Startled, she found herself looking across the room into the eyes of a student named Leah. Even before they spoke to each other in private, they already knew.
Leah Capranica was a 19-year-old political science major from a small town in Illinois. When she was trying to decide whether to report her rape, in January 2011, she talked to Emily Harris, director of student advocacy and accountability, and was troubled to hear that her attacker, if found responsible, would face only probation. He’d be allowed to remain in the dorm she lived in, too. What’s more, she says she was told that her attack “wasn’t that serious.” Capranica had been sexually assaulted after her assailant—the same as Mee’s—allegedly spiked her drink at a party and she blacked out. (Research has shown that most college sexual assaults are committed by a small number of serial rapists who often use alcohol in their assaults.) Meeting with Harris, Capranica felt so defeated that she didn’t end up reporting the incident until the next semester. Although her attacker admitted to the assault, he received only probation, as Harris said he would.
In the fall of 2011, Mee followed Capranica’s lead and reported her rape. By then she was working with Heldman and Dirks. The two feminist professors recorded the stories of assault survivors and taught them about their rights under Title IX and how to navigate Oxy’s murky reporting process. Like activists at other schools, they thought their administration wasn’t nearly transparent enough, particularly regarding sanctions, which ranged in severity from an apology letter to victims and/or community service to suspension or expulsion. Nobody on campus seemed to know how the sanctions were applied or on what criteria they were based. The professors also advocated for students in judicial hearings, another source of controversy. Campus judicial boards were never meant to try serious crimes like rape. That changed in 2011, when the Department of Education sent schools a letter warning that if they didn’t curb sexual violence, they were in danger of violating Title IX. Colleges scurried to establish panels to adjudicate and punish sex crimes. Like many schools, Oxy used a panel of faculty and staff to decide cases, including Mee’s.
Mee was told her case would take three weeks to a month to investigate. Instead it took seven weeks, and her hearing occurred just before finals. Mee’s schoolwork suffered, and she had to take two incompletes. “Every day I felt I was barely hanging on,” she told me. “I’d call my mom, hysterical.” During the process, schools are required to help victims with any housing or academic issues. Mee asked that her attacker be moved to another dorm because she felt threatened. But an administrator told her not to worry, “that she had met with my rapist,” Mee said, “and that he didn’t seem like the type of person who would do something like that.” She was terrified that he would go after her.