As colleges continue to grapple with the increasingly public issue of campus sexual violence, California lawmakers are weighing how to address a "rape culture" that some say has been overly tolerated by the state's public universities.
During a joint oversight hearing Monday afternoon, members of the Assembly Higher Education and Joint Legislative Audit committees questioned whether schools in the University of California and California State University systems need harsher punishments for perpetrators and greater legislative oversight to ensure they are complying with federal requirements to investigate and report incidents of sexual violence on their campuses.
"What I see is a mistrust of the universities to handle the problem," Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said following testimony from student representatives. "Without consequences, I don't know that we can fairly expect the sentiment or behavior to change."
The hearing followed a state audit, released last week, that concluded California's universities are not doing enough to ensure all employees are trained to handle incidents of sexual violence. It also recommended more education be provided to students about prevention and campus resources available to them if they are assaulted.
Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, suggested legislation requiring staff members to report any incident of sexual violence that they become aware of. Currently, CSU employees are required to report cases to the administration, but employees in the UC system, which has more autonomy, are not.
He also emphasized the need to focus on implementation of the laws that are already on the books. More than fifty colleges across the country, including several in California, are under federal investigation for complaints that they have mishandled reports of sexual violence.
"We'll be focusing like a laser on what schools are doing and how they're going to get it done," Jones-Sawyer said.
Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, said he was concerned that the number of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence being suspended or expelled from campuses is low.
Williams asked representatives from UC and CSU at the hearing to provide data on dismissals, but only Berkeley had numbers: 10 suspensions or expulsions out of 43 cases involving non-consensual sex over the last six years.
Punishment has been the biggest point of contention in discussions surrounding campus sexual violence. As victims have complained that their assailants are getting away with light sentences, some schools have moved to implement harsher disciplinary actions, including mandatory expulsion for sexual assault at Dartmouth College. A growing opposition has countered that expelling students could ruin the rest of their lives.
"These victims don't just want support, they want justice," Williams said at the hearing.
Citing the federal Clery Act, which requires institutions that receive federal financial aid to meet certain investigation and reporting requirements or risk losing that support, Williams pointed out that colleges have "not only the right" to go after perpetrators of sexual violence, "but they have the duty to do so."
PHOTO: UC Berkeley students Shannon Thomas, 21, left, and Sofie Karasek, 20, embrace after a press conference at UC Berkeley on Feb. 26, 2014. Thirty-one female students have filed two federal complaints against the university, alleging that they've violated Title IX anti-discrimination laws by failing to protect them against sexual assaults. Bay Area News Group/Jane Tyska