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Put to the test: How is U.C. Berkeley addressing sexual assaults on campus?

Liz Mak
Student activists Sofie Karasek and Meghan Warner


Sexual assault on college campuses is a topic that's difficult to escape right now. That's partly because earlier this year, the Department of Education released a list of 55 college campuses facing investigation for failing to take sexual assault reports seriously.
University of California, Berkeley is on that list. The school has recently undergone a state audit and has been sued twice in the past year, when 31 students and recent alumni filed federal complaints, saying Berkeley mishandled sexual assault investigations. 

On the state level, California is also working to address the issue of sexual assault on campus. In September, the state passed a new “Yes means Yes” law. The law basically states that on college campuses, students have to give, and receive, affirmative consent before any sexual activity.

But what does this change look like on the ground? 

Back in September, a group of mostly women students met up outside Kroeber Fountain on the U.C. Berkeley campus. They were marching to offer support for victims – though they prefer the term survivors -- of sexual assault.

The rally marked the end of the Cal Clothesline Project, a hanging exhibition of t-shirts painted with messages of support for survivors: The organizers wanted to let the administration and fellow Berkeley students know that sexual violence on campus is a big problem.

One of the organizers, Meghan Warner, a junior studying Sociology and Gender and Women’s studies, was there for personal reasons. Her own t-shirt hung on the line, painted with messages she has heard from classmates: "Stop victim blaming"; "But girls lie about being raped all the time"; "Why did you go upstairs?"; and, "If you weren't drinking, it wouldn't have happened." 

It was largely because of such comments that Warner chose not to report her rape. She was assaulted at a fraternity her freshman year. 

Experiences like Warner's frame what is happening at Berkeley as part of a larger cultural problem. Not only are survivors blamed for their assaults, but for a long time, campaigns have focused on teaching women to protect themselves – instead of teaching perpetrators not to assault. Warner says this message can be harmful to survivors. 

"I hear it as, 'Here’s how this is your responsibility. And here’s why we don’t believe you,'" she says. "The idea that this is an individual issue and not a systemic issue is very, very frustrating."

Senior Sofie Karasek was also assaulted her freshman year, by a leader of a student organization she had just joined. It happened during a weekend retreat.

Karasek didn’t think to report, until she found out that she wasn not the only one. She and three other students took their case -- against the same assailant -- to the school. She says trusted Berkeley to handle it. But then eight months passed, and still no word. 

When other students told Karasek her assailant was about to graduate early, she filed a federal complaint against the school, accusing Berkeley of failing to communicate, and of actively discouraging students from reporting. She says survivors have heard inappropriate questioning from school officials, from asking about their choice of apparel, to probing if the survivor previously had a sexual relationship with the assailant. Karasek says UC Berkeley officials have also been known to tell survivors that without witnesses to the assault, there was very little the school would be able to do. 

"It can be really discouraging at times to walk around and think: 'There’s this other dark side that people aren’t talking enough about,'" she says. "There are so many people who are afraid to come forward and talk."

Last fall, Karasek co-founded a group called End Rape on Campus. It helps students file federal complaints against their schools. She says so far, they’ve worked with students from over 20 colleges.

And Berkeley says it is getting the message. That's why the school is implementing new programs on campus, including online trainings and a mandatory in-person workshop for incoming students. The school has a new website with resources for survivors, and is waging a stop sexual violence campaign. They've also hired a confidential student advocate. 

The school says all this is just the beginning, and that they hope to launch new initiatives and expand others. But while Karasek acknowledges the changes, she says it's not enough:

"You can take a lot of pretty pictures, make a public campaign about how important sexual assault is to address," she says. "But if you’re not really changing how the institutional structure of reporting and educating students and all of these different facets of sexual assault prevention and response -- then you’re not really changing much of anything."

Claudia Covello is the Executive Director of the University Health Services at the Tang Center at Berkeley and in charge of consent education at the school.


Covello says Karasek isn't the only one whose concerned, "they’re seeing the efforts, but it’s not going fast enough. The culture isn’t changing fast enough so that when you see poster campaigns and slogans and websites being put up -- but the issue is still happening -- that feels incongruent," she says. "And so you would say, it’s all lip service then because it’s still happening."

And it is still happening. Since California passed the new "Yes means Yes" consent law this September, at least 10 sexual assaults have been logged by the University of California Police Department. But Covello says Berkeley's trying to do more than change laws, they're trying to change a culture, and that takes time.

How much is Berkeley communicating with its students about the new consent laws? We asked students to see how much they knew about the change in policy, and to hear their thoughts on affirmative consent on campus. 

Some women say the message hasn't reached everyone. They say there are still certain fraternities they know to avoid, something second year Michelle Guillen says is an open secret on campus. "Even going to parties, a lot of girls say, "Oh, don't go to that frat," because they know that that frat roofs girls," Guillen says. "But that frat is still associated with campus." 

Senior Clay Smith wonders about the applicability of the new law. When it gets to the actual situation, he says getting consent can be awkward. 

"For a lot of people, that would really put the whole kind of situation on the spot," says Smith. "Because I think a lot of people’s 'game,' per se, is playing around that idea and hinting at it while not fully hinting at it." 

Smith says the lack of ambiguity might ruin 'the game' for some of his peers. "Maybe for some of these creepy guys who are trying to push some girl into something they’re not trying to do -- maybe it is ruining their game, which is a good thing," he says. 

At the very least, people are starting to think, and talk, about the culture of sexual assault on campus. The wall of silence around rape isn't gone, but it is being dismantled slowly, according to Berkeley's dean of students and associate vice chancellor Joseph Greenwell. He admits Berkeley has made mistakes in the past.

"We acknowledge that communication was an issue," he says. "We acknowledge there’s been cases where timeliness was an issue.We acknowledge that we didn’t have mandatory – truly mandatory – training that had any ramification about it."

But he says, now they're trying to change the system from the inside.

"We acknowledge all of that. But, we need to move forward. We need to talk about what our future is, and that we want to be leaders in this."

To lead the way for campuses across the country, Greenwell says the university has to work with students, not against them. To do that, they will have to earn their trust -- something that assault survivors like Sofie Karasek say won't be easy.  

"It was really earth shattering how betrayed I felt after dealing with the university and feeling completely unsupported, feeling that they did not care about the safety of their students," says Karasek. 

"I think that Berkeley has amazing students and has amazing faculty. But I think the people that run the university don’t always serve our best interests."