How the Global Movement is Changing Campus Response to Sexual Assault
By Liz Zarka
In the wake of the October 2017 New York Times report detailing years of systematic sexual misconduct perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein, we have witnessed Hollywood ingenues, corporate professionals and Olympic athletes alike take to social media to share their experiences as survivors.
#MeToo has created a cascade of activity seeking justice for victims, resulting in companies and institutions parting ways with alleged perpetrators, congressional resignations and electoral upsets. Amidst the news maelstrom, it is easy to forget that cases of sexual violence and harassment occur in our own community.
“I want to say it was early October,” Imani Williams* told The BCC Voice, “I went to a fraternity on game day, and there was this guy that I had been talking to for a little bit. Then all of a sudden, I was blacked out on his bed, on my stomach, and he was having sex with me from the back. I woke up several times and I was like ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ and he wouldn’t stop, and I would just fall back asleep again.”
Williams recounted her experience navigating the sexual assault reporting process at Berkeley City College in the weeks and months following her violent rape, in order to help The BCC Voice better understand the relationship between the #MeToo movement and the BCC community, and learn how the college’s administration approaches the difficult task of addressing sexual misconduct.
“We have run the gamut in terms of incidences that have been reported to us. It’s typical to address dating violence, stalking, workplace harassment and sexual assault. We’ve seen it all, we’ve heard it all and we’ve addressed it all,” explained Jason Cifra, Vice President of Student Services at Berkeley City College.
In addition to serving as the Vice President of Student Services, Cifra is the campus’ Title IX coordinator, a position that he has held for the past six years. Title IX is a federal law that falls under the 1972 Education Amendments, prohibiting institutions that receive federal funding, which the vast majority of state and community colleges in the United States do, from discriminating against students on the basis of sex. For decades, it has served as the preeminent law under which courts have litigated claims of sexual harassment and violence. Under Title IX, schools are legally required to take action to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct cases that might create a hostile educational environment. If they fail to do so, these institutions run the risk of losing federal funding.
Through meeting with Cifra, The BCC Voice learned that many measures BCC employs to tackle the issue of sexual misconduct involve coordination with outside parties. In addition to hiring contractors to educate students and faculty about sexual assault, Title IX and Safe Zone awareness, BCC enlists the help of several community partners for preventative and early-response measures, including Bay Area Women Against Rape and community-based mental health providers. Cifra said that the heavy reliance on these organizations for intervention is intentional, explaining that going to campus to receive services for sexual assault could further trigger already-traumatized victims. Deferring to external parties, he believes, might be a more convenient and comfortable option for individuals reporting experiences of sexual violence.
Williams disagrees. During our conversation, she listed several on-campus resources that she wishes had been available to her and other sexual assault victims. She points out that while there are mental health counselors in the building, open appointments are difficult to come by since the number of staff members in the counseling department is woefully inadequate to deal with the volume of students requiring help. Even having access to a simple support system, the sort of place where students who experienced sexual assault could go to share their stories and be surrounded by people who can relate, would have been helpful in her healing process, Williams says.
She also wishes there were more transparency about the resources that are available. Unaware of the college’s Title IX office, Williams attempted to report her rape to the Associated Students of Berkeley City College (ASBCC). After listening to William’s story, an ASBCC officer claimed that he would take down her experience and submit a request for a formal investigation with campus administration. Instead of following the proper channels and adhering to basic standards of procedure, which maintain the confidentiality of the victim, Williams claims that this individual shared her story with other members of the organization, and she quickly became the subject of unwelcome student gossip. During all of this, Williams says her mental health declined, and she turned to alcohol and marijuana to cope with her depression.
The BCC Voice reached out to the ASBCC regarding these claims, but has yet to receive a comment.
The #MeToo movement forces us to confront the reality that unfortunately, William’s story is not out of the norm. For months, we have heard case after case revealing how victims’ brave pursuits for redress have traditionally been met with silencing tactics or incompetence on behalf of the entities that are meant to help them. Nevertheless, by revealing the ubiquity of sexual misconduct in virtually every facet of American life, and signaling to victims that they are not alone in feeling unsatisfied by the tepid responses on behalf of responsible institutions, the movement is already contributing to higher rates of reporting in communities nationwide.
In the month that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were released, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network received a 21 percent increase in traffic on its national helpline. A December 2017 report by The Harvard Crimson states that the campus has experienced a 20 percent jump in reported sexual harassment cases compared to the same time period for the year previous.
As we face the possibility that more and more students will come forward, the Berkeley City College administration should be prepared to meet victims’ bravery with an organized, well-communicated response.
#MeToo should inspire us to look forward and evaluate how we can improve our existing institutions to make efficient reporting possible. Cifra ended the interview by sharing his vision for how BCC could be more effective in addressing sex-based crimes, outlining changes that include adding a mental health provider to the Title IX department, as well as “confidential advisors,” staff members who would be assigned to individual students to direct them to legal services and help guide them through the formal process of investigating a Title IX violation.
Four months after her assault, Williams told The BCC Voice that she was dealing with her mental health a lot more than she did before. She is taking a full load of classes this semester and regularly speaks with a psychologist to cope with assault-related trauma in place of self-medicating. Next semester, she hopes to organize a campus club that would host weekly meet-ups to which women could simply show up, hang out and feel comfortable being surrounded by a community of other women. “The club would be called ‘Safe Space’,” she said. Despite the ongoing struggle in the aftermath of her rape, Williams has regained a lot of her confidence and levity. “In terms of the merch, I’m thinking of taking the NASA logo, but instead of ‘NASA’ we put ‘Safe Space’ in front of it” she mused, an excited smile breaking out across her face.
*Name changed to protect privacy of sexual assault victim.
The BCC Voice wants to help educate the community about resources and how to respond in cases of sexual misconduct. If you are a survivor of sexual harassment, assault or rape, here is where to start:
- Reach out to Janine Greer, Mental Health Specialist at the BCC Wellness Center (510-981-2894; firstname.lastname@example.org) to schedule an appointment.
- Notify the Responsible District Officer about the incident as soon as possible. For students, this is the Vice-President of Student Services, Jason Cifra (510-981-2900; email@example.com). For employees, this is the District Equal Opportunity Officer.
- Meet with the Responsible District Officer to go over the details of the incident and learn about the different options available for proceeding, including informal and formal complaint processes. If an informal complaint process is preferable, the Responsible District Officer will facilitate a meeting and/or mediation session with the complainant and respondent.
- If a formal complaint process is preferable, or an informal complaint process has failed, the Responsible District Officer will help the complainant file cases with the Equal Opportunity Commission for employment-related claims, or the Office for Civil Rights for non-employment related claims, and answer questions about seeking further legal representation.
For a complete explanation of the unlawful discrimination and sexual harassment complaint and investigation procedures, please visit the following website: http://web.peralta.edu/hr/files/2010/09/Complaint-and- Investigation-Procedures-for-Employees-and-Students.pdf