Sofie Karasek spent her freshman year at the University of California at Berkeley the way most college kids do. She got used to roommates. She went to parties. She learned to wear shorts in winter—which, as a Boston transplant, she found “totally weird.” And in February 2012 she signed up for a three-day retreat with a student political club, joining 34 other undergrads on a trip to San Diego.
At the retreat, Karasek, now 20, shared a cramped hotel room with a dozen other students. At around 3:30 a.m. that first night, she woke up to find the guy next to her had his hand down her pajamas.
She tried to get away but couldn’t. “He was—I don’t like describing it out loud, but it was awful, and it lasted a really long time,” she says.
“I just lay there thinking, what do I do? There were 10 other people in the room with me, and they were all asleep. Was I really going to wake them up?” If she lay still, she thought, maybe he would stop. The next night, she slept in a different room to get away from him.
Another woman took her place.
In the weeks that followed, Karasek met other women who told her the guy had done the same to them. One was the woman who’d switched rooms with her that night at the retreat. Karasek decided she needed to do something.
On April 20 of that year, Karasek says, she and three other women walked into Berkeley’s Center for Student Conduct to report that the same student had assaulted them. They told their stories to several administrators, including the school’s Title IX officer, Denise Oldham. At the meeting with Oldham, who enforces women’s rights to equal education under Title IX, Karasek says they were asked to write statements about the assaults. She assumed this was a formality and didn’t submit hers for almost a month. One woman, she says, misunderstood and didn’t write anything. Karasek says the school never followed up with that student. “She thought that telling her story out loud counted as informing the school,” she says. Berkeley acknowledges that a verbal report is enough—but Karasek says the women don’t know if that complaint was ever addressed. Berkeley says it can’t comment on specific students’ conduct cases and refused repeated requests to make Oldham available for interviews, saying “she’s focusing all her attention on addressing the situation.”
Photograph by Talia Herman for Bloomberg Businessweek
Karasek says Berkeley allowed her alleged assailant to go on a summer travel program, despite her warnings that several assaults happened during unsupervised trips. He also remained a member of the political club, although the president of that group, Anaïs LaVoie, had been meeting with administrators to get him kicked out. At one meeting, LaVoie says, a university staff member told her that they needed to “keep him close in case it happened again, so there would be a community of friends to support him in processing it and anyone else he assaulted.” In another meeting, LaVoie says Oldham warned her that the school could be subject to legal retaliation if she forced him out of the club. “Basically, they didn’t want to get sued,” LaVoie says.
Karasek didn’t hear anything from the school for months. Finally, eight months after she reported her assault, she received two three-sentence e-mails from Berkeley saying her case was resolved and the student was found “in violation of the code of conduct.” He graduated in December 2012.
Karasek wasn’t satisfied. In February of this year, she and 30 other current and former Berkeley students, some as old as 60, filed two complaints with the U.S. Department of Education charging that the school violated their Title IX rights by mishandling their cases and, in some instances, discouraging them from filing reports. The 70-page, 35,000-word document alleges negligence, botched investigations, and general incompetence, and includes incidents that date to the 1970s. It comes on the heels of a federal complaint Karasek and LaVoie filed with the Department of Education last May alleging violations of the Clery Act, a 1990 law that requires universities to publish a comprehensive list of crimes on campus. And it’s one of at least 13 such complaints filed by women within the last year against Swarthmore College, Dartmouth College, the University of Akron, and the University of Southern California, among others. (These complaints are sealed to the public and the schools, but each college confirms the existence of a complaint.)
This approach is spreading, and it’s already changing the way discipline occurs in the quiet, self-policed world of the college campus. It could also cost colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines, not to mention the price of additional administrative hiring and post-scandal public-relations cleanup.
The complaints, filed with the Department of Education, aren’t written by lawyers—they’re written by college students. Karasek is a member of End Rape on Campus (EROC), a coalition of six women who have filed several complaints, led by Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, who are 24 and 22 years old, respectively. “The complaints that we receive today from these students are better in terms of their understanding of the law than the ones that used to be filed by professional advocates,” says Jim Moore, head of the agency’s Clery review team.
The Department of Education has started imposing penalties to motivate schools to change. In 2008 it handed out a $357,000 fine—its biggest ever—to Eastern Michigan University for covering up the rape and murder of a young woman by another student in her dorm. Last year it fined Yale University $155,000 for failing to report four sexual assaults that occurred more than a decade ago. “Increasing our fines was a conscious decision,” says Moore. “There is an intention to continue to do that.”
In some cases, the scandals are spilling over into civil court. Lawyer Gloria Allred, representing women at Occidental College, settled with the school for an undisclosed sum; Occidental neither confirmed nor denied liability. She is also seeking damages for students at the University of Connecticut; the school has denied the suit’s key allegations. Allred says she’s negotiated settlements with “a number of other schools” without filing lawsuits.
In the four years before Clark and Pino began filing complaints in January 2013, the department’s Office for Civil Rights received 120 Title IX complaints related to sexual violence but opened only 11 investigations, denying the rest. None of EROC’s 13 cases have been denied. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” says Allred. “These Title IX complaints are a whole new legal frontier.”
The most widely cited statistic, found in dozens of scientific studies and government reports from the Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others, says sexual assault—legal parlance for any unwanted, forced sexual contact, including its most violent version, rape—will happen to about 20 percent of women during college. It’s hard to know how accurate that estimate is, because the crime is chronically underreported. There are 35,900 students at Berkeley, but for 2012, the most recent year for which the school has published crime data, the number of sexual assaults recorded was 31.
“Higher education is facing a new compliance environment reminiscent of the one public companies faced with the onset of Sarbanes-Oxley”
As with other violent crimes, sexual assault victims almost always know their attacker. In college, they’re often students at the same school. There’s the option of filing a police report—rape is generally classified as a felony—but schools must investigate and handle sexual assault cases themselves, whether or not criminal charges are filed. “It’s very similar to the controversy of sexual assault in the military,” says David Lisak, a clinical psychologist who works with rape victims. “You have a lot of young people together in a closed environment, under the supervision of one institution that’s legally bound to take care of them. This is when things get messy.”
Since the 1972 passage of the Title IX education amendment, gender discrimination has been outlawed at any school—public or private, elementary or graduate level—that receives federal funds. Title IX became famous for its impact on college sports. But in several cases, the Supreme Court has asserted that sexual harassment and assault are forms of discrimination and covered under the law. If female students can’t feel as safe as their male peers, they’re at a disadvantage. According to Title IX and the federal laws it inspired, if something happens in an environment where the school retains authority—on a field trip or in a dorm—and the school should reasonably know about it, the school is required to act even if the police are dealing with the matter.
Karasek didn’t like the way her case was “resolved.” But she didn’t know she could do anything about it—until she read an article about Clark and Pino. In January 2013, Clark and Pino had filed Title IX complaints against their school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alleging mishandling of their own assault cases. They have spent the past year helping others do the same.
Clark, tall and blue-eyed, says that as a UNC freshman in 2007, she told the school she’d been raped by someone she couldn’t identify. Clark knew UNC couldn’t do anything about her attacker, but when she asked for help, she says a staff member likened rape to a football game and asked her, “You’re the quarterback and you’re in charge, is there anything that you would have done differently?” (UNC says it can’t comment on individual cases.) Pino, who’s shorter, more solemn, and so fast-talking that she can be hard to understand, had heard what happened to Clark. When she was frustrated by the university’s reaction to her rape in 2012, she contacted her.
“Initially we were just going to write an article together about how the school still needed to change,” says Clark, “but then we started doing the research, and we realized this wasn’t just UNC.” They reached out to sexual assault activists at other colleges, eventually connecting with Dana Bolger, an Amherst College student, and Alexandra Brodsky, one of 16 Yale students who, with the help of lawyers, filed a Title IX complaint against the university in 2011. (According to the Department of Education, Yale has worked with it to revise its policies; the investigation was closed in 2012.) Brodsky and Bolger now run a website called Know Your IX that provides legal explanations and help for students who feel they’ve been wronged by their schools. There’s also a private Facebook (FB) group where college students who’ve been raped or assaulted can meet one another and ask for advice. Today the group has almost 900 members from more than 50 schools.
Photograph by Talia Herman for Bloomberg Businessweek
Clark and Pino didn’t have the money for a lawyer, so they decided to write a complaint themselves. At the time, Clark was working as an administrator at the University of Oregon, while Pino was enrolled at UNC. They did everything over Facebook, Gmail, and Skype (MSFT). They learned legal terms by downloading Supreme Court oral arguments and listening to them on their iPods. “We played them in the shower, in our cars,” says Clark. “I’d be walking around campus with my earphones in, but instead of music it was, like, legal podcasts.”
In January 2013, Clark and Pino filed their Title IX and Clery complaints against UNC along with two other students. They were joined by Melinda Manning, UNC’s former assistant dean of students, who says the administration pressured her to lower the number of sexual assaults she reported in her Clery crime statistics. “The university kept asking me to recount them,” she says. “So I recounted them and submitted them. The numbers should’ve been higher than what the school ultimately reported.” According to UNC, in a meeting with the university’s board of trustees a week after the complaint was filed, Vice Chancellor and General Counsel Leslie Strohm said Manning’s allegations were “false, they are untrue, and they are just plain wrong.” The school now says it admires the women’s bravery but can’t comment on specifics of the Department of Education’s open investigations. When asked about Manning’s accusations, UNC’s Title IX compliance coordinator, Howie Kallem, says, “I can’t speak to what happened before.” (Peter Grauer, the chairman of Bloomberg LP, which owns Bloomberg Businessweek, is a trustee at UNC.)
After Pino and Clark went public with their stories, women at other schools asked them for help, often through LinkedIn (LNKD) and Twitter (TWTR). Karasek found Clark on Facebook. Allred came calling. There were many tearful Skype sessions with women who’d never told their stories before. “I sort of had a breakdown that spring,” Clark says. “There was this flood of people who’d had these horrible experiences, and it was really overwhelming. It just wouldn’t stop.”
Pino and Clark helped some of the women file complaints at schools including Occidental, USC, and Dartmouth. In June, Clark left her job at the University of Oregon, Pino took a semester off from UNC, and they moved to Los Angeles where they launched EROC as an official 501(c)3. They slept on couches and floors. At one point, they lived in a tent. They worked out of a frozen yogurt shop. The intensity of the experience strengthened their bond. They finish each other’s sentences—and meals—and hold the kind of shortened conversations where half of everything goes unsaid because they’ve talked about it a thousand times before. “We even have matching tattoos,” says Clark. They got them—the Roman numeral IX—the day they filed their UNC complaint.
This new wave of complaints is so successful because of the increased oversight by the Department of Education and because of the penalties the agency is issuing to spur widespread change across campuses. “It’s very much like what happened with the mortgage oversight agencies,” says Moore of the Clery review team. Gina Smith, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Philadelphia’s Office of the District Attorney who now works as a sexual assault policy consultant, likens it to the greater regulation in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals. “Higher education is facing a new compliance environment reminiscent of the one public companies faced with the onset of Sarbanes-Oxley,” she says, referring to the 2002 law that increased penalties for fraudulent corporate accounting.
For a long time, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights—the regulatory body that oversees Title IX—issued broad requirements about sexual harassment but rarely mentioned rape or assault. “By 2005 the OCR started hearing things from schools like, ‘Well, rape isn’t sexual harassment, so it’s not part of the law,’ ” says Kallem, a policy writer for the federal office before he was hired by UNC in the wake of Pino and Clark’s complaints to fill the newly created position of Title IX compliance coordinator. “It was true; we never said rape.” They had established policies for how to handle harassment, but not assault.
So in April 2011 the civil rights office sent letters to colleges outlining a proper response. Schools had to investigate all allegations thoroughly, allow both sides to present evidence, accommodate students’ requests to change classes or dorms, and conclude everything in 60 days.
Colleges were shocked. Until then, many had been handling rape cases as quietly as possible. UNC had allowed its student honor court to decide its sexual assault cases. A former Berkeley student says that at her 2009 hearing the accused student was allowed to present witnesses and hire a lawyer, and she was not. Russlynn Ali, the former head of the civil rights office who wrote the letter informing schools of their duties, estimates that about 40 schools voluntarily changed their policies immediately after the guidelines were released. The almost 5,000 additional colleges covered under Title IX weren’t enthusiastic.
“It’s stunning how vitriolic the pushback was,” says Ali. She received death threats from men’s rights groups, who claimed that Title IX’s “preponderance of the evidence” standard—finding that something was more likely true than not—meant that men could now be falsely accused of rape and kicked out if a school took their accusers’ word over theirs. (Reliable statistics on false rape charges are hard to come by, but psychologist Lisak puts it somewhere from 2 percent to 8 percent.) “That’s not how it worked at all,” says Ali. “ ‘Preponderance of evidence’ is the standard for all civil rights cases. We weren’t creating a new standard of proof; we were just reminding folks of how Title IX operates.”
This spring, EROC is filing a batch of new complaints. There’s one against the University of Akron, where a recent graduate named Julia Dixon—whose rapist pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in criminal court, for which he spent two days in jail—alleged that her school’s sexual assault policy had been copied almost verbatim from another school’s. As a result, it listed services her college didn’t offer. In an e-mail, Akron spokeswoman Eileen Korey acknowledged the similarities, saying “the attorneys for Ohio’s public universities work collaboratively on issues of common importance.” The misleading references have been removed. Clark also is advising a freshman at an upstate New York college who says she was sexually assaulted by a group of football players.
One of the biggest and most all-encompassing complaints has been the one at Berkeley. Two of the 31 students and former students who signed on had filed a similar complaint against the school in 1979 for not firing a male professor who wrote a negative letter of recommendation for a female student who refused to sleep with him. “We went to administration, and initially they just laughed at us,” says Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at the City University of New York who was part of the original 1979 complaint. “Sofie’s experience seems very similar to what we went through. Only this time, a policy now exists to stop it.” Says Berkeley spokeswoman Claire Holmes: “We recognize that we need to get better. We’re trying really hard.”
The Department of Education can take years to complete an investigation, so the ultimate impact of EROC’s complaints remains to be seen. Schools found guilty of Clery violations can expect $100,000 fines, in addition to the amount they spend changing internal policies. In the wake of the complaint against it, UNC says it has spent more than $600,000 on an expanded Title IX team and the services of Smith. She was also hired at Occidental and Swarthmore, which sometimes puts her at odds with the advocacy group. “In light of Title IX, schools are challenged to do more than the criminal justice system would do,” she says. “Colleges don’t usually handle a large number of sexual violence investigations, but I think that’s changing as students become more comfortable coming forward.” She’s part of a market of consultants and policy experts that’s cropped up; universities are willing to pay high prices for someone to tell them what to do. After Karasek’s Clery complaint last May, Berkeley created two positions for sexual assault advisers. The university is in the middle of a policy overhaul and “is working on a number of other things and dialoguing with students,” Holmes says.
On the February morning before Karasek filed her Title IX complaint, she and five other victims held a press conference on Berkeley’s campus. Local news outlets and a handful of students attended. Before it started, the women, in Berkeley sweatshirts, reviewed their statements and drew protest signs for Clark and others to hold.
Photograph by Talia Herman for Bloomberg Businessweek
“Why is this so awkward?” asked Meghan Warner, a 20-year-old sophomore.
“I feel like we’re in the Sexual Assault Breakfast Club,” joked Aryle Butler, also 20.
The women laughed nervously, hugged each other, then took their seats and gave detailed accounts of their assaults. They told of rapes at drunken frat parties, in dorm rooms, and during a summer program affiliated with the school. One student said her rapist pleaded guilty in criminal court but was merely suspended from campus. Berkeley says that since 2008, its Center for Student Conduct has received only 10 allegations of rape and that all parties found responsible have been “removed from the university.” Since 2011, Berkeley says it has suspended six people for lesser assault violations.
Later that evening, Clark walked with Karasek to her apartment to file the complaint. Karasek lives in the Cloyne Court Hotel, a 100-year-old dorm populated by Berkeley students that’s known as the largest housing co-op in America. The women grabbed their laptops from Karasek’s clothing-strewn room and walked through hallways painted with psychedelic murals to a study room. For the next three hours they worked on the complaint. They cross-checked names and dates and did last-minute fact-checking on Wikipedia.
They discussed what to have for dinner (“more pizza?”). They checked Facebook. When they finished their work, they composed an e-mail to the Department of Education.
“Wait, wait!” cried Clark before they hit the send button. “We have to take a picture!” She had screen grabs of every Skype session she’d had with women as they filed their complaints; tonight was a rare chance to do one in person. The girls posed for a selfie. Then Karasek took a breath and hit “send.”