Carly Mee, a student at Occidental College, was hanging out with friends in late 2010 when a male student’s name came up. Mee was standing near Leah Capranica, a fellow sophomore, who said she’d had a bad experience with the student. The two women met the next day and told each other a secret: They had been sexually assaulted by the same man.
The women filed complaints with the college, and after investigations, the male student was found responsible for Mee’s attack, according to college documents, and admitted assaulting Capranica, she and university professors said. Occidental expelled him. A few months ago, Mee received word that the man would be allowed back to school the next academic year, after writing a report about a book on sexual assault.
“The verdict wasn’t changed,” she said. “The punishment was changed. I asked why and no one could tell me.”
Across the country, colleges are under fire for using antiquated and amateurish procedures to prevent and investigate rapes and other sexual assaults on campus. Chronically slow, botched and biased responses -- in some cases relying on students as investigators -- have prompted anger from rape victims and scrutiny from the U.S. Education Department.
A group of Occidental students and alumni filed a Title IX complaint with the Education Department on April 18 saying the school doesn’t meet federal standards for preventing and responding to such attacks. Title IX, the legislation known for guaranteeing women equal access to sports programs, bars all forms of sex discrimination on campus. The Education Department is investigating the group’s claims.
Similar complaints have been filed against Yale University, Swarthmore College and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Swarthmore, in Pennsylvania, and UNC are conducting reviews of their sexual-assault policies.
“The young women who have come forward to report their assaults should feel protected, but the colleges have magnified their suffering,” said Gloria Allred, a Los Angeles-based attorney who is representing Mee, Capranica and other students who say they were sexually assaulted at Occidental and the University of Southern California. “These are institutional failures to comply with government regulations.”
Allred led a May 22 press conference where students at Dartmouth College, University of California, Berkeley, and USC said they’d filed complaints against their schools for alleged violations of Title IX and the Clery Act, the federal campus crime-reporting law.
Yale, based in New Haven, Connecticut, is facing a $165,000 Education Department fine for failing to report campus sexual assaults in 2001 and 2002. The university is being monitored by the agency through May 2014 for compliance with regulations.
At least one-quarter of women are sexually assaulted during their college years, according to studies published as recently as 2000 by the U.S. Justice Department and crime researchers. About 27 percent of college women are raped or suffer attempted rape, according to researchers at Wayne State University.
A relatively small minority of men are responsible for most of these attacks, according to David Lisak, a former University of Massachusetts clinical psychologist who consults to the U.S. military and colleges on sexual assault.
In Lisak’s study of 1,882 college men, 120 admitted committing rape or attempted rape. They admitted to 483, or an average of 4 assaults each.
“College presidents don’t like to hear this, but these are sex offenders,” said Lisak, who spoke last month at Harvard University, sponsored by student group Harvard Men Against Rape. “Every report should be viewed and treated as an opportunity to identify a serial rapist.”
Occidental President Jonathan Veitch declined to discuss specifics of Mee and Capranica’s cases, or disclose the name of the male student, citing state and federal privacy laws. Reducing punishments may be appropriate when new evidence comes to light, he said.
The school has hired two former sexual-crime prosecutors to review procedures and previous cases for mistakes, bias and other concerns, Veitch said. The independent investigators will look at cases where sanctions are reduced, he said.
Occidental and other schools are struggling to understand and respond to complicated interactions between young students, Veitch said. Questions such as what it means to consent to sex are unclear in the minds of many young people, he said.
“Colleges and universities are being asked to take on essentially judiciary functions when this isn’t the reason most people came to colleges and universities,” Veitch said in his office overlooking the campus’s bay-tree lined quadrangle and red-tiled roofs. “I’m not sure I fully understand why it isn’t handled by the judicial system, but it’s not, so it needs to be addressed by us. If we take our students’ well-being seriously we need to address it.”
Amherst College is overhauling its sexual-assault response programs following a campus outcry over the school’s policies. In a 5,000-word, first-person account in the school newspaper, a former student said she was raped in 2011 and the Amherst, Massachusetts-based school discouraged her from reporting.
Until last year, students at the University of North Carolina could take sexual-assault complaints to Honor Court, a student-run conduct committee. The university took that power away as concerns about the campus response to sexual violence mounted, and now it recommends that such cases go to a college-run grievance committee or law-enforcement officials.
“It was surprising to me that the Honor Court ever had jurisdiction over this in the first place,” said Kevin Diao, a UNC senior, in an interview in the campus student center. “We’re students here, we’re not investigators.”
Students often don’t report sexual assaults to the police because the assailants may be friends or acquaintances, and the victims may not want them arrested, said Linda Fairstein, former head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney.
The involvement of alcohol or drugs may also delay reporting, which makes evidence and witnesses harder to find, said Fairstein, a senior adviser on sexual misconduct for the K2 Intelligence risk analytics firm in New York, who consults to colleges.
“People tend to think of these as situations in which both parties have consumed alcohol, communication is muddled, and things go a little too far,” Lisak said. “It’s seen as a kind of ‘rape lite.’”
Occidental, a 125-year-old, selective liberal arts college with about 2,100 students, sits on a hillside in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles, near Pasadena. Hummingbirds, fountains and oak and eucalyptus trees inhabit the 120-acre (47-hectare) campus. The school gained attention after the election of U.S. President Barack Obama, who spent his first two years of college there in 1979-1981. It’s about an hour from Mee’s home, and her sister also attended.
The following account is based on interviews with the female students and Occidental professors and a review of college documents obtained by Bloomberg News.
Mee had been at Occidental College about two weeks in 2009 when she went to a party and became intoxicated. A male student separated her from her friends, led her back to her room and raped her, she said.
The next night, the same student forced his way into her dorm room and assaulted her again, Mee said. At first, she didn’t want to report the incidents. Mee said she received little education about sexual assault when she started college and didn’t understand what it meant to give consent.
“I told a friend, and he said I was stupid for letting him in my room,” she said. “I felt I was somehow at fault.”
After she was assaulted, Mee said she continually saw her attacker leering at her in the school cafeteria, called “The Marketplace.” Friends told her they heard him talk about his enjoyment of dominating women, she said. She felt like she was always looking over her shoulder.
“Oxy’s a small campus, and every party I went to I pretty much left in tears,” she said. “I couldn’t go out or even go to the place where we eat because I knew I’d see him.” She said she thought of leaving the school.
Capranica, the second victim, said she was attacked just before classes began her sophomore year in 2010. She suspected her assailant had given her drinks that might have been spiked.
Mee and Capranica declined to name their attacker. Students are often reluctant to identify assailants publicly because of the risk of legal reprisals from them or their families, said Danielle Dirks, an Occidental sociology professor who helped Occidental students write their Title IX complaint.
College investigations can also be “quite disadvantageous” for accused students, said Fairstein, the former prosecutor. Those students may not be allowed to use lawyers or call witnesses, or have the rights of someone charged in the criminal justice system, she said.
“The accused may well be deprived of what we think of as due process,” she said.
Allred declined to name any of the women’s alleged assailants. She and her clients are investigating cases against the college, not the assailants, at this time, she said.
“We’re not asking the federal government to investigate whether a rape or a sexual assault took place,” she said in a telephone interview. “The accused is the college. We’re naming the colleges.”
When Capranica first talked with school officials about reporting the incident, she said they discouraged her. They said her assailant wouldn’t be expelled even if he was found responsible, and she would still see him on campus. They also discouraged her from going to police, Capranica said.
After an Occidental student reports another for assault, both the alleged victim and perpetrator describe the incident in written statements, according to a college handbook. Designated school officials then investigate and interview witnesses.
When the school began investigating Capranica’s complaint, the male student admitted to assaulting her, according to Capranica and professors who helped her file her case. He was put on probation and told to write a book report.
Capranica said the investigators didn’t talk to witnesses who might have helped establish his predatory behavior. She decided to graduate early, at the end of 2012, because she felt let down by Occidental.
Mee found her investigation even more frustrating.
The male student didn’t admit to assaulting her. To resolve such probes, Occidental’s Title IX coordinator selects a panel of three trained campus officials for a hearing, who rule by a simple majority vote on whether the alleged perpetrator is responsible. The chairman of the panel recommends a punishment, if needed, and students can appeal the panel’s finding.
Between the investigators, administrators and officials at the hearing, Mee said she told her story about 10 times. She left each meeting in tears and had trouble sleeping, she recalled. She took incompletes in two classes, finishing during vacation time. Rather than enjoying the sunbathed campus, she spent much of her time doing homework in the library’s basement. She joined a support group and began seeing a therapist, saying she felt depressed.
Mee asked whether her assailant could be moved off campus during the investigation. A school administrator who had spoken with the alleged attacker said he wasn’t dangerous enough to be asked to leave, Mee said.
“They acted like they could judge his character just from meeting with him,” she said.
After the three-month probe, the man Mee accused was found responsible for her assault and expelled, according to documents. In accordance with school procedures, he filed an appeal.
Then, on Jan. 12, Mee got a message from the Office of Student Conduct, saying the male student would be allowed to return to campus in December, after she graduated. He would also have to write a report on a book about sexual assault, Mee said.
In April, a third female student came to the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition, a group of students and faculty fighting campus rape, saying she had been assaulted by the same man and that he had been found responsible by the college, said Caroline Heldman, chairman of Occidental’s politics department and a faculty member of the group.
“We’re talking about a perpetrator with several victims,” Heldman said. “It just seems like a no-brainer that if you identified a serial rapist, you would expel him.”
After graduating last month, Mee is planning on law school next year, following her mother, who specializes in arbitration and mediation. Mee said she’s unlikely to return to Occidental in the months or years to come because the male student will be back on campus.
“I can’t come back and visit the college I went to and visit my friends,” she said. “And if he comes back, there are other people at risk of being assaulted.”