Congresswomen urge Dirks to improve campus sexual assault prevention and response

Amid a federal investigation and state audit into UC Berkeley’s handling of sexual assault cases, two U.S. congresswomen compiled recommendations to Chancellor Nicholas Dirks on Monday, fewer than three weeks after they met with Dirks and student survivors on campus.

Reps. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland,sent a letter to Dirks on Monday outlining recommendations for enhanced prevention and response to sexual assault incidents. Speier and Lee met with Dirks and several UC Berkeley student survivors on April 15 to discuss campus efforts in combating sexual assault.

“UC Berkeley, if it takes the right steps toward prevention, can be a catalyst to end this national epidemic,” Speier said in an statement. “Being assaulted can define a student’s educational experience, and the university should provide survivors the resources they need to recover and be adamant about expelling predators from its campus.”

Speier said in the statement that although she is encouraged by the steps the campus has already taken to address the issues, she was concerned by a number of allegations that UC Berkeley has not adequately handled sexual assault cases.

The campus recently created a survivor support website that guides students through the complaint process and enumerates resources available to them.

Claire Holmes, associate vice chancellor for communications and public affairs, said that although administrators have not yet been able to thoroughly go through the recommendations and develop a formal response, the campus is always open to improving.

“Some of the things (in the letter) may be achievable and some are things we’ll have to look at further,” she said. “We will obviously be cooperating fully with the two congresswomen and we look forward to partnering with them to address the issues.”

The first of the congresswomen’s 10 recommendations calls for enhanced prevention. Acknowledging that UC Berkeley currently has training programs in place for incoming students, Lee and Speier said that the campus needs to move one step further and enforce the mandatory training.

Students are currently required to attend an EmpowerU session, a 90-minute workshop on violence prevention, but there is no enforcement procedure in place to ensure students attend. The congresswomen highlighted student survivors’ suggestions to block registration until students have attended bystander training and consent workshops.

UC Berkeley senior Shannon Thomas was appreciative of their first recommendation, adding that additional sensitivity and awareness training should be required of staff who handle sexual assault cases.

“A lot of (survivors’ anxiety) had to do with improper training and … misinformation that oftentimes delayed justice or caused more pain and anguish and anxiety,” Thomas said. “It was really unnecessary and could have been avoided had the people in their positions known how to do their jobs.”

Other recommendations included providing peer-to-peer counseling or trauma specialists for sexual assault survivors and making “rape kits” available on college campuses. The congresswomen also urged for adequate academic support and accommodations for survivors.

UC Berkeley sophomore Meghan Warner, who met with the congresswomen in April, said she was excited that they included most, if not all, of the concerns they had discussed during the meeting.

“We don’t have a lot of people with positions of power actively supporting us,” Warner said. “People think I’m just over-exaggerating, but now (sexual assault) is finally being addressed on a national level and people are taking it more seriously.”

Thomas also said it was “heartening” that the congresswomen were highlighting their concerns and supporting their cause, but that she hopes it’s the advice of the students, rather than politicians’, that makes the difference.

“While it’s promising that people from the federal government are standing up for us, the concerns of the students are what really need to be taken into consideration,” Thomas said.

Next month, Speier plans to introduce the Hold Accountable and Lend Transparency on Campus Sexual Assault Act, which would, among other measures, require annual climate surveys on college campuses and increase funding to address the issue across campuses nationwide.

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