National Beat Reporter
The University of California Board of Regents announced the latest phase of its sexual assault policy reform at its closing session last Thursday, but not before student advocate Catt Phan took to the mic to criticize the board’s slow progress on the issue.
The second-year global studies major attended the July 21-23 meeting of the Regents armed with the indignance that has echoed across the UC Santa Barbara campus in recent months, with a message to match: Enough with the dawdling; the time to act is now.
Out of the 240,000 students in the UC system, approximately 25,500 will experience sexual violence during their college careers, according to Phan, who informed the board at both its Wednesday and Thursday sessions. When those students seek disciplinary action against their perpetrators, however, their judicial experiences are often less than satisfactory. Phan described chancellor responses to Title IX complaints and grievances about UC judicial staff as “lackluster.”
“When you’re inundated with constant reports about how the UC schools handle cases,” Phan said, “many are starting to believe that this body is prioritizing student fees over student well-being.”
The UC Student Association chose Phan to serve as the organization’s representative advocate for the July meeting based on her evident passion for sexual assault policies. Systemwide change “is not happening at a pace that students want,” Phan said in a separate interview. Through her presentation to the Regents, she hoped to light a fire under the board’s collective behind.
Phan’s statements reflect many of the same grievances that sparked the #nowUCsb campaign, a movement that made administrative waves on the UCSB campus in recent months to get its point—or list of 13 demands, rather—across. Most notably, campaign leaders and sexual assault survivors Lexi Weyrick, Alejandra Melgoza, and Melissa Vasquez staged a sit-in alongside their supporters on the floor of Chancellor Henry Yang’s office last May. After 13 hours, the three students procured a signed agreement promising the eventual fulfillment of most of their demands, many of which called for campus-wide policy changes such as a minimum sentence for perpetrators and annual reports on campus assault statistics.
“Eventual,” of course, is the operative word, especially when contending with administrative red tape. Yang has promised that several policy changes will kick in this fall, around the same time as the projected rollout of UC President Janet Napolitano’s own systemwide sexual assault policy reform—an initiative that has been in the works for a little over a year.
In June 2014, Napolitano formed the Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Assault to generate recommendations for systemwide policy changes. Senior Vice President and Chief Compliance Officer Sheryl Vacca reported during the most recent Regents’ meeting that many of these recommendations have now been implemented throughout UC campuses, with an additional four to be finalized by September and implemented by January 2016.
One recommendation pending official issuance is a student adjudication model that incorporates consistent appeal grounds for all parties, an impartial hearing body with expert qualifications, and proper due process considerations as a body without powers of criminal prosecution. To this end, Vacca emphasized a need to, “assure that we have role clarity for all those participating.” The model also calls for common investigative practices that employ a trauma-informed approach, as well as a common framework for student sanctioning.
The task force hopes to ensure such consistency through more comprehensive training for faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students, which is addressed by the second pending recommendation. The committee plans to issue core educational concepts as the basis of this training, though campuses may add to the mandated curriculum as they see fit.
Third, the task force plans to establish a data management system with common metrics and definitions for tracking survivor experiences, and the efficacy of the initiative as a whole. To achieve this, representatives will work with campuses to develop quantifiable criteria to sustain the system. A year after full program implementation, the committee will reassess to examine whether it had changed behavior or otherwise made a difference.
The final recommendation calls for respondent support that is comparable to the support complainants receive. This support will involve “Respondent Services Coordinators,” or RSCs, on all campuses, with an understanding of certain core responsibilities the respondent must execute, as well as the services to which he or she is entitled. The recommendation also emphasizes a clear separation between confidential advocate offices and RSCs on campuses to ensure a fair judicial process for both parties.
Before the task force could get too self-congratulatory, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom reminded those in attendance that the Regents were recently sued for “deliberative indifference” regarding their inaction on sexual assault. Newsom said that he and his wife, an executive producer of the campus rape documentary, The Hunting Ground, have come into contact with numerous survivors who are still dissatisfied with the board’s progress, thus demonstrating “communication issues and lapses that seriously need to be reviewed and considered.” Regardless, he commended the task force for its goals and encouraged continued progress toward them.
Even with these objectives somewhat fixed, “we are working with shifting sands here,” Napolitano said. “The legal and regulatory framework is changing.” At the state level, this shift is caused by two bills up for Assembly vote in just a few short weeks. Both are authored by Assemblymember Das Williams, whose representation of Isla Vista has frequently led him to take action on common campus issues like sexual assault. Assembly Bill 967, if passed, would require campuses across the state to consider instating a two-year minimum suspension for students found responsible for sexual assault. Furthermore, it would require administrations to report the adjudication outcomes of sexual assault cases they review. AB 968 would immortalize such disciplinary sentences by mandating that all California public schools and postsecondary institutions note suspensions or expulsions on student transcripts, including the length of time before the student in violation was permitted to re-enroll.
All proposed approaches, whether based in academic policy or legislation, target the same ultimate goal: to combat one of the worst crimes afflicting UC students each year. However, only through implementation can any approach prove truly effective. “I don’t want it to be just a moment,” Phan said. “I want it to be a movement.”