They never listened.
In February 2013, Alexa Schwartz told USC’s Center for Women and Men, now the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention and Services, that she had been sexually assaulted.
Schwartz, then a junior majoring in theatre, waited three months and heard nothing back. No updates, no acknowledgement, no plan for action. When she returned to the center, she said that she found that the counselor she first spoke to hadn’t reported her case. Schwartz felt that her trauma had been forgotten.
Her alleged assailant, she said, had remained enrolled at USC, on track to graduate two weeks later. The only option for recourse remaining would take place after his graduation. In Schwartz’ eyes, the case had simply slipped through the University’s fingers.
Schwartz is one of many students who feel that the University didn’t listen to their stories of sexual assault. Now, she hopes to prevent this from happening to anyone else at USC.
After her experience, she banded together with other students who went through similar experiences to seek justice under Title IX, a law that prohibits gender discrimination in education. A total of 16 students and alumni who alleged their cases had been mishandled by the Title IX office at USC filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which agreed to investigate the University in July 2013.
“We started as a small group and then pulled more people in over social media,” Schwartz said. “Just asking people to spread the word that we’re looking for anyone who experienced any kind of issues with their investigations, or any negative experiences with the University, and it really blew up.”
Almost four years later, USC remains under federal investigation for alleged violations of students’ Title IX rights, facing accusations that it mishandled and underreported cases of rape and sexual assault.
In those four years, the University implemented programs and procedures for preventing and reporting assault, some of which were direct responses to the investigation. But students and administrators still cite difficulties within the University, despite increased awareness about campus sexual assault.
When the federal investigation of USC first began, Schwartz was joined by two other students — Ari Mostov and Tucker Reed. Both claim that they turned to their university following a sexual assault only to have their stories go ignored.
The Title IX Office declined to comment on the investigations of Mostov, Reed and Schwartz.
Mostov said an officer dismissed her rape when she first reported it to the Department of Public Safety. She said he argued that a rape couldn’t happen if the assailant didn’t orgasm, despite the fact that penetration occurred.
“Because he stopped, it was not rape,” Mostov was told, according to the Title IX complaint. “Even though his penis penetrated your vagina, because he stopped, it was not a crime.”
This does not align with the definition of assault provided by the Department of Justice, which states that sexual assault is any coercive, nonconsensual sexual contact. But because of an officer’s personal interpretation, Mostov’s case was left ignored.
Reed’s experience followed the same pattern. She said that in 2013, she offered the administration an audio recording of her ex-boyfriend admitting to assault. Instead of offering a punishment, the university official informed her that their goal was to offer an “educative” process to students who commit assaults.
“The problems are rampant within every department, pretty much every service on campus,” Reed told the Huffington Post. “There is an overwhelming disregard for women and students going through obvious trauma, and they traumatized them further.”
The investigation spurred the University to improve systems to both prevent sexual assault and encourage victims to report incidents. This process included adding a coordinator to improve the training of campus security authorities, USC Title IX Coordinator and Executive Director Gretchen Means wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan in August 2016.
Training and prevention programs are continually being refined and reworked. The administration coordinates with University organizations such as the Engemann Student Health Center and the Office for Wellness and Health promotion, along with student organizations and cultural centers.
Yet despite these efforts, the federal Title IX investigation of USC continues, leaving the three women who first launched it to wonder if their stories will ever be heard.
For Schwartz, the key to stopping sexual assault begins with reporting. Victims must feel safe enough to report their assaults to the University, she said, while the administration must be ready to listen and to help.
Currently, only 20 percent of victims report assaults to the police, according to the U.S. Justice Department. This statistic makes prevention tricky, because a higher number of reports could reflect that students are comfortable speaking out about the issue.
This means lower rates could indicate a more repressive environment rather than a safer one, according to Schwartz, who emphasized the importance of a climate in which survivors feel safe coming forward.
“You’re never actually going to go down to zero any time soon, so you want to hear about the sexual assaults that are happening,” Schwartz said. “If you think that there are zero going on, then there might be a communication problem.”
Then and now
The solution, however, doesn’t end with reporting. In the wake of the Title IX investigation, the University increased its focus on preventative programs. These include mandatory online courses such as “AlcoholEdu” and “On the Safe Side,” which new students must take before registering for classes.
But Means believes that these programs cannot completely prevent assault on campus.
“Effective prevention is multi-disciplinary, delivered in a variety of mediums and reinforced by cultural forces inside and outside of the University,” Means said. “Students come to school with diverse experiences and backgrounds, [which] means that we need to design prevention programs that meet students where they are. USC is working hard to create prevention programming that can meet this reality.”
Schwartz also believes that the climate surrounding sexual assault has changed since 2013. She sees programs such as Violence Outreach Intervention and the Community Empowerment peer-to-peer education program as a sign that students are invested in prevention.
“A lot of students really care about this issue, and want to make a positive change and get trained and help out,” Schwartz said. “That feels very different culturally than from when I was a student — [dialogue about sexual assault] was very taboo, and there was no such program.”
After her assault, Schwartz learned firsthand the burden of reporting and sharing experiences with both the government and fellow survivors. But she feels the conversation is worth the effort.
“Before we started with the activism, I felt pretty alone and I didn’t really hear people talking about this very much, and I didn’t really know how to talk about this myself,” Schwartz said. “I’m proud of what we’ve done and what I’ve done.”
Yet, Carry believes that the momentum of the movement has begun to stall.
“I want to get back to the days when students were banging down my door saying, ‘Let’s do something to end sexual misconduct on our campus’ — I miss it,” Carry said. “I really want students to get fired up about this again. I don’t want this to become, ‘Oh, that was important in 2013’ — until we get to zero, this is still important.”
Shyann Murphy, the former director of the Women’s Student Assembly — now the Student Assembly for Gender Empowerment — agreed that, at the height of Schwartz’s case, activism was strong. But she believes the conversation has turned in a new direction rather than stalling.
“I think that when I first came to USC a lot of the conversation was, ‘If someone’s drunk, they’re not consenting,’” Murphy said. “Now I see the conversation going toward, ‘how can we support survivors, how can we change these things, get bystanders to intervene.’ I think that conversation is evolving. I’d like to see it evolve even more so that people can … look at rape culture and look at how it’s so intersectional with so many other marginalities.”
The ultimate goal, Carry says, is for sexual assault to never happen again.
It’s a goal that Carry calls “chasing zero” — zero sexual assaults reported on campus for an entire school year. According to Carry, the preventative measures and programs already developed by the administration reflect this mission.
“How do we stop these things from happening?” Carry said. “It’s bold, it’s ambitious, it’s crazy, some people might say, but we owe it to our students to chase zero in this issue. [Sexual assault] changes people’s lives in a very dramatic way, and I think we can be a better university than having more than one incident of sexual misconduct every year.”
Despite this goal, the numbers of forcible sexual offenses — listed by DPS as rape, fondling, incest and statutory rape — reported by DPS have remained constant over the past four years. In its 2016 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, DPS reported that sexual offenses fell from 33 in 2013 to 31 in 2014 before rising to 41 in 2015.
Carry and Means embrace the fact that the Title IX process still has room for improvement. The waiting period for victims typically lasts 60 to 90 days, according to Means, though the U.S. Department of Education recommends a 60-day turnaround. Understaffing may be one reason for the delay — the RSVP staff consists of three counselors, which Murphy says is not enough to help students in the way they deserve.
“So many people need [RSVP’s help] and need those services,” Murphy said. “The counselors are really busy, and they’re also doing programming and educational workshops — [they] need more people, resources and money to program.”
For Carry, a crucial solution to achieving the University’s goal of zero sexual assaults digs down to a more basic level — demanding that students live up to Trojan values.
“If students saw everybody as their sister, their mom or their brother, and they intervened — what would you do if somebody was doing that to your sister? — you would intervene,” Carry said. “That shared responsibility for each other — that’s going to be a huge help in getting us to zero.”
Every six months, Schwartz contacts the Office of Civil Rights for updates on the investigation, and asks when the investigation will be closed. The answers are always the same, always brief — the case is ongoing. In four years, she says, her case hasn’t changed.
As years have passed, Schwartz has become increasingly doubtful about the direction and timeline of the investigation.
“Now that there’s so many schools under investigation, it feels less likely they’re going to reach a new conclusion since they have such a small staff,” Schwartz said. “I’m wondering how much longer it’s going to take for this investigation to finish, because I’m not really sure what they’re still looking for.”
She doesn’t know if her case will ever be resolved. But Schwartz hopes for a future where students like her will feel brave enough to come forward and where, this time, the University will listen.