The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation on June 26 into cases of alleged sexual assault of three university students, making USC one of over twenty schools to come under scrutiny for its response to sexual violence.
The investigation, which came after students filed a federal complaint on May 22, will seek to determine whether or not the university violated students’ civil rights under Title IX, a federal law against gender discrimination.
OCR guidelines state that all complaints must be filed within 180 calendar days of the alleged discrimination. In an email to the Daily Trojan, Title IX Coordinator and Office of Equity and Diversity Director Jody Shipper said that once a complaint is accepted, the OCR will work with the school to get information about the allegations before reaching a final conclusion.
“We have always worked collaboratively with the Department of Education, and plan to do so in any future cases filed,” Shipper said.
Sexual assault, as defined by section 11.53 of the SCAMPUS Student Guidebook, is “non consensual actual or attempted intercourse, sexual touching, fondling and/or groping.” The same classification is applied to rape when “vaginal, anal or oral penetration takes place without the consent of the person penetrated.” In both cases, SCAMPUS states that culpability is not diminished when the perpetrator is intoxicated or under the influence of illegal or controlled substances.
In light of the launch of the federal investigation, students in the university’s Student Coalition Against Rape (SCAR) held a news conference on July 22 to publicly detail their complaints. The conference was led by 23-year-old Tucker Reed, a student who filed a sexual assault complaint last November before publicly naming her alleged rapist via her blog in March.
“I blogged openly about the details of my rape and the university’s abuses,” Reed said at the conference, “and watched as my inbox filled with messages from fellow students who had experienced the same injustices and the same silencing.”
SCAR Co-Founder and Title IX complainant Alexa Schwartz said that it was only until they came together that they realized they all shared the same grievances.
“We are a group of survivors and allies who have seen a lot of wrongdoing in a particular department,” Schwartz said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “We don’t have a vendetta against USC as a whole, but in order to raise attention to this we had to do what we had to do because our voices weren’t being heard.”
Schwartz said the goal isn’t to eliminate the university’s party culture, but rather to make it more safe.
“This isn’t about taking away people’s fun. It’s about recognizing that if you’re not creating a safe environment for people, that’s not fun for anybody,” Schwartz said.
The university released a statement July 22 confirming that it had been notified of the complaints of Title IX violations and the subsequent investigation by the OCR.
“The university is strongly committed to upholding all aspects of Title IX,” Shipper said in the statement. “The opening of an investigation is an expected step in the process, and the OCR states that ‘opening the allegations for investigation in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to their merits.”
Four days later, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Elizabeth Garrett issued a statement to the USC community reaffirming the university’s zero tolerance policy on issues of sexual misconduct.
“In light of recent news stories about an inquiry by the OCR concerning the cases of three USC students, I am writing to underscore what our university does to protect our campus community in this realm,” Garrett said in a statement.
Garrett also addressed inaccuracies in the media’s reporting.
“There are not 100 students who have complained to the federal government about the process, as some have claimed,” Garrett said. “Instead, a student alleged that USC had not responded appropriately in 16 cases; the OCR accepted three of those cases for further investigation.”
Comments allegedly made by a Dept. of Public Safety officer to Ariella Mostov, a senior majoring in writing for screen and television, also sparked media attention. According to a report by the Huffington Post, Mostov said that campus police dismissed her claims of rape because “her alleged assailant did not orgasm.”
DPS Chief John Thomas dismissed the alleged comments, reaffirming that DPS takes all reports of sexual assault very seriously.
“A student who filed a report of sexual assault with DPS alleged in the press that an officer made an extremely offensive comment and failed to follow proper protocol,” Thomas said in a statement issued July 26.
Due to the ongoing investigation, both DPS and the Office of Equity and Diversity denied further comment.
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