Does UC Davis have a rape problem?

On how the No. 1 college in the state for reported sexual assaults—and one of the top five schools in the country—needs to change

Ashley still can’t sleep at night.

Last October, the UC Davis student turned 22 and celebrated her birthday with friends dancing at downtown bars. Ultimately, she found herself alone and drunk at 3 a.m., wandering outside her apartment complex about a mile north of campus.

The streets were quiet, apart from a big group of guys hanging around outside. Two of the men approached and insisted on escorting her home. She had never met them before, but they seemed harmless enough—just UC Davis students making small talk about their majors.

When they got to her apartment, one asked to use her restroom. She said no. He begged, pleaded. She opened the door. A few minutes later, she was sandwiched on her couch, paralyzed with fear.

Ashley says her mind shut down after her clothes came off. She remembers the pain, their laughter and, finally, how she cried when they left.

Now, despite reporting the sexual assault to the city police department and to the university, Ashley says she’s still fighting for justice. She says the police quickly closed her case—not much can be done without forensic evidence. Meanwhile, UC Davis took nearly eight months to finally wrap up her case in August.

“The process makes you feel like shit,” says Ashley—Ashley isn’t her real name; other victims’ names in this story have also been changed to protect their privacy.

“It’s traumatizing. You feel like you made a mistake by reporting it at all,” she says.

At UC Davis, Ashley’s story is not unique.

In July, The Washington Post gathered annual crime statistics—federally required record keeping through the Clery Act—from every U.S. college with at least 1,000 students from 2010-2012. It ranked the schools based on the number of reported on-campus sexual assaults. UC Davis ranked No. 5 with 60 “forcible sex offenses,” up there with Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, University of Michigan and Ohio State University.

New Clery data came out earlier this month. UC Davis still has the most reported on-campus sexual assaults in the entire UC system. From 2011 to 2013, 66 assaults were reported at UC Davis, compared to a systemwide average of 34. At Sacramento State University, just six were reported on campus in that time frame.

Does UC Davis have a rape problem?

Members of the university administration don’t think so, and experts agree that a higher reporting rate is actually a good thing. Still, there are survivors like Ashley who say they’ve found the school’s internal process frustrating.

It’s a sentiment echoed across the country as students start speaking out about college rape culture. According to the widely-cited 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study conducted for the Department of Justice, one in five women experience sexual assault before graduation.

Now, politicians—from Gov. Jerry Brown to President Barack Obama—have started to take serious notice, launching public awareness campaigns and passing new laws aimed at preventing sexual assaults on college campuses. Changes are coming.

And the spotlight might soon glare on UC Davis. A group of students are discussing filing a federal complaint against the school for allegedly violating Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions, including public universities. Sarah Yang, a recent UC Davis graduate and activist, is gathering potential complainants.

“It’s the school’s duty to go through lengths to make sure its students are safe,” Yang says. “We have to show that the university won’t tolerate rape, even if the outside world does.”

Rape and the victim-blaming game

Lauren says she’s been raped twice during her time at UC Davis. The first rape happened freshman year. After weekly political science study sessions, a classmate invited her over to watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine. They split a wine cooler. Then, the movie ended, and she stood up to leave. He pushed her to the ground, leaving her facedown, staring at the door when he climbed on top of her.

She doesn’t remember much after that. She doesn’t remember how she got home. Lauren didn’t even know that what happened was rape. She didn’t realize it until her second rape four years later; someone she considered a good friend kept advancing even though she said, “no, no, stop.”

“Whenever people talk about sexual assault, it’s like a random stranger that jumps out of a bush and attacks you,” she says. “I didn’t even realize it could be a friend or someone I knew.”

For Lauren, the definition of rape has been a confusing, gray area that she’s still trying to navigate. She says she wishes she received more education about consent and acquaintance rape at UC Davis. Instead, she never reported either incident. Lauren says she’s furious but would never be able to report a friend to the police.

According to “Drug-facilitated, Incapacitated, and Forcible Rape: A National Study,” a report prepared for the Department of Justice in 2007, just 12 percent of college victims report their rapes. Compare that to the 40 percent of victims among the general population who report, according to the Department of Justice’s “National Crime Victimization Survey: 2008-2012.” By that math, 66 on-campus assaults collected by UC Davis are likely a fraction of the real figure. Separately, the City of Davis Police Department has recorded even fewer—31 off-campus sexual assaults were reported by UC Davis students from 2011 to 2013.

Because sexual assault is so under-reported, the higher number is actually better, according to UC Davis spokesperson Andy Fell.

“We make a strong effort here to get those reports and that does bring up our numbers,” he says. “We should be more worried about the schools reporting zero.”

Experts agree. Annie Clark, co-founder of the advocacy group End Rape on Campus, says the data is helpful but not a great overall representation since it only tracks on-campus crimes.

“A lot of people look at these numbers as a measure of safety but they’re not necessarily,” she says. “Schools with the higher numbers might be more accurate because students feel more comfortable reporting—maybe we should be applauding them.”

There are plenty of reasons why students don’t report their assaults. Sometimes they fear getting into trouble for underage drinking, or think that officials won’t believe them. Victims often blame themselves.

Another UC Davis student, Karen, says she nearly didn’t report her case of sexual assault for that exact reason. She was drinking at another student’s apartment one night last summer when she passed out, as she had several times in the past, assuming she’d be safe. She woke up to an acquaintance on top of her. She froze in shock—she tried to kick and scream but couldn’t move. The next morning, he pretended everything was normal.

“Someone I knew did this to me—that ripped away my trust with everyone,” she says. “I felt so disgusted, so dirty, so violated, not human anymore. I felt that way for a very long time.”

She decided to report it. Her socially conservative family told Karen it was all her fault. Her sisters are still angry with her for going public, getting the police involved and “damaging the family name.”

But generally, Karen says she found support from the campus community. Her professors were accommodating when she missed deadlines. Except one. After telling a professor about her upcoming trial, she says she felt targeted, uncomfortable and chose to drop the class instead.

Such occurrences are not totally uncommon, but still shouldn’t happen, according to Jessica W. Luther, a freelance journalist for publications such as The Austin Chronicle, who is writing a book on college football and sexual assault.

“I think everyone should be trained to speak with more sensitivity,” she says. “If a teacher is making light of [sexual assault], imagine how damaging that would be to a victim.”

Ashley claims she encountered victim-blaming all year, from all angles. She says investigators from both the city and university asked leading questions about how much she drinks, how often she parties and what she wears. Or worse, if she said no loud enough, if she fought back hard enough. Her roommates ostracized her, saying Ashley was the danger to their safety for allowing the perpetrators in their apartment. Other friends firmly believed the attackers were nice guys, incapable of such behavior.

And, Ashley adds, academic advisers and some other school staff didn’t offer much support. She says they’d offer words like, “These things happen,” “Guys are like that” and “Be more aware of your surroundings next time.”

UC Davis spokesman Fell says that UC Davis maintains a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to rape. “We will do everything it takes to improve our services to our students and enhance efforts to prevent sexual violence, or any type of violence.”

UC Davis may have ranked No. 5 on the Washington Post’s chart of sexual assaults, but Fell also points out that UC Davis’ numbers fell much further down the list when its size was taken into account. The school enrolls more than 30,000 students. Compare that to Reed College, which had 35 reported assaults with a population of less than 1,500. It’s a problem that plagues colleges regardless of location, whether it’s private or public or even whether it has a football team, Luther says.

“The size of the school doesn’t seem to matter … [sexual assault] keeps happening over and over again,” she says.

Why? Partying and boozing are huge, and often lead to miscommunication. Female students, such as Karen, Lauren and Ashley, also point to power dynamics, the objectification of women’s bodies, male feelings of entitlement and general misogyny.

“[The attackers] do it so they can feel like they’re in control, like they’re dominant,” Karen says.

But Ashley says when she tries to bring these topics up with friends, she’s usually brushed aside.

“Davis makes it tricky,” she says. “It’s this small town, utopia. You can’t talk about sexual assault, and if you do, no one believes you.”

“I was on my own”

UC Davis activist Sarah Yang is now an activist for change on how the college handles sexual assault allegations.

<b>photos by darin smith</b>

Ashley says she reported her assault to the UC Davis Title IX office in January. She was frustrated her police report would do nothing to punish her attackers, and she wanted to feel safe again.

When students are assaulted, they have a multitude of reporting options. If they want to press charges and go to court, they can report to the UC Davis Police Department for an on-campus crime or to the Davis Police Department for an off-campus crime. Either way, if the perpetrators are affiliated with UC Davis, students can report to the university and seek disciplinary action.

UC Davis conducts its own internal investigations through its Title IX office. Victims, perpetrators and witnesses are all interviewed, sometimes multiple times. A formal report and verdict—based on the “preponderance of evidence” standard instead of “beyond a reasonable doubt”—then goes to the Student Judicial Affairs office, which issues the discipline. Student Judicial Affairs also holds hearings for student conduct violations like plagiarizing.

Beyond the “interrogating” from the Title IX investigator, Ashley says she was most frustrated by how long the process took. It concluded at the end of May, and the disciplinary process didn’t end until August.

By policy, the Title IX office is supposed to conclude a case within 60 working days. UC Davis Chief Compliance Officer Wendi Delmendo says her office “tries really hard to keep in that time frame.” But some cases, especially those with multiple witness accounts, take more time.

All the while, Ashley claims she still had to face her attackers on campus. Sometimes when it happened, she’d duck into the nearest bathroom to cry before running to class. Unable to concentrate, the perpetual Dean’s Honors List student failed a class for the first time. That one failure caused her to be dismissed for a quarter, due to a contract with the university related to her financial aid.

Yet the UC Davis Title IX investigator wrote in the report that “evidence does not show that her school, work or learning environment suffered directly because of the alleged sexual assault.”

The report yielded other odd assumptions about the perpetrators. They had highly conflicting stories. They each blamed the other person. The first said they didn’t know each other; the second said they were friends. The first one sent text messages asking the second to falsely tell the investigator that Ashley removed her own clothes.

Despite the text messages, the investigator wrote, “it appears unlikely [the perpetrators] are friends.” The investigator determined the second student to be the most credible—even though his story did not match Ashley’s or other witness’ versions—because he said he had a medical condition that didn’t let him drink. There was, however, no corresponding proof or doctor’s note in the report.

The first student was found guilty of violating student conduct, but only given a quarter suspension—keeping him briefly off campus until Ashley graduates. The second student was let off completely and has since graduated.

These investigations are confidential—Ashley was explicitly told not to share the report or its findings with anyone. And the university can’t comment on any specific cases for policy reasons, spokesman Fell says.

Ashley says she found some support with Phoenix Rising, a student survivor group run by university counseling services. She met 15 students there. Two of those students reported their rapes, but they both gave up with the process early on, Ashley says.

Many reports don’t actually result in investigations. Between 2011-13, the UC Davis Title IX office investigated 17 alleged sexual assaults—which could be either on-campus or off-campus—even though 66 assaults were reported on-campus.

Since 2011, the university has investigated 25 cases and found 11 guilty. Four are still in the hearing process. Of those found guilty, most are expelled. In some cases, the perpetrators are given the option to withdraw instead.

One reason for the discrepancy is that investigations require names—sometimes attackers are strangers—and those names must belong to someone who attends or works at UC Davis. UC Davis can’t expel someone, for example, who isn’t a UC Davis student in the first place. Some prefer to deal with the police; others don’t want to bother at all.

Sarah Meredith is the education coordinator at the Campus Violence Prevention Program, the main campus resource for the university’s victims. It’s tasked with providing information as well as advocacy services in-person or via letter. Meredith says it’s tough to estimate how many students who can report to the university do report. She guesses about half.

“For a lot of people, they’re trying to move past it,” she says. “They’re looking for information about counseling services or they can’t eat or sleep or they’re having difficulty concentrating. We help them with those issues.”

Ashley says she wishes CVPP had been more helpful throughout her ordeal. She says she asked for assistance dealing with her landlord—her apartment served as a constant trigger, and sexual assault victims can legally break their leases early. Instead, she gave up, moved out and paid double the rent for months.

She says she asked if there was any way to avoid being in the same graduation ceremony as her attacker. She claims that she asked for help when she tried to edit her police report and says she got no response.

“It seemed like I was bothering them,” Ashley says now. “I was on my own.”

Meredith maintains that CVPP supports those who ask for help in whichever way they choose.

“It’s up to the victim,” she says. “But we will get up at three o’clock in the morning and go with them to the hospital for an evidentiary exam.”

Compared to Ashley, Karen says she had an opposite experience with CVPP—including a last-minute, accompanied trek for a rape kit. She says the CVPP advocate, Jacquelynn Lira, helped her regain her confidence and feel validated again.

“If she wasn’t here, I would have been completely lost,” Karen says. “I wouldn’t have known what to do, what my options were. I wouldn’t have done anything at all.”

Karen says she considers herself very lucky for receiving so much support. After all, CVPP has a staff of two.

“If there are thousands of women who experience this, there are only so many that CVPP can help,” Karen says.

With government officials getting involved, that number could change as early as next year.

Changing the law, changing the culture

Sarah Yang became the big public voice for sexual assault victims at UC Davis this year. She spoke at rallies at the Capitol. She represented the West Coast at the White House, where she spoke to Vice President Joe Biden about rape culture on campus. Having experienced domestic violence, she co-founded the Women’s Health Initiative at UC Davis two years ago—it’s the only student group dedicated to advocacy against sexual assault.

With such prominence, students have started reaching out to Yang about their own experiences. She says UC Davis’ handling of sexual assault cases is varied at best—and may merit a federal investigation.

She’s enlisted the help of Aryle Butler, one of 31 students to file a federal complaint against UC Berkeley for violating its Title IX obligations to provide equal access to education. They’ve gathered a number of interested students already but are looking for more before filing the complaint. Yang says one investigation took close to two years. Butler says campus police refused to open one investigation at all, while another was encouraged to take time off rather than press charges.

If the government finds violations, it could revoke all federal financial aid funding from the university. But that’s never happened before—the Office of Civil Rights negotiates with universities before going to court, and universities always promise to make improvements.

“The attention and potential for reform is important,” Butler says. “Even more important is that they bring survivors together and help students realize that what’s happened to them is wrong and illegal.”

The issue is getting tons of national attention right now, as the Obama administration launched a massive public awareness campaign called “It’s On Us” last month. Meanwhile, the feds are investigating 76 universities for mishandling cases, including UC Berkeley and UCLA. There’s also a new bill floating through U.S. Senate, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, which would require more resources for students and stiffer federal penalties for colleges that violate the Clery Act.

In California, Gov. Brown signed two bills into law late last month dealing with campus crimes. One requires the university to report violent crimes, such as rape, immediately to local law enforcement unless the victim requests otherwise. The other is known as the “Yes Means Yes” law, which requires universities to adopt a standard of affirmative consent. Specifically, silence or a lack of resistance because of intoxication do not equate to consent.

It also requires trauma-informed training for those who handle complaints, access to counseling services and victim-centered policies in general. For Yang, the law signals a huge step forward in fixing a pervasive, victim-blaming rape culture.

“You won’t get ’boys will boys’ anymore,” she says. “It won’t be considered a common courtesy or gentlemanly to not sleep with a girl who is passed out. It’s straight-up illegal.”

Part of the law is related education for incoming students during orientation. UC Davis has had this covered since 2010.

But survivors say they wish there was more in-person education on an ongoing basis. They also wish the workshop hadn’t moved to an online format this year, where participants can more easily tune out information. CVPP does offer these sort of additional sessions, though they’re not required. Karen believes CVPP should hire more staff and be located in a more central location—currently it’s tucked away next to the campus police station with little fanfare.

“It’s inconvenient for someone who already feels unsafe to walk all the way to that one center for resources,” she says. “I think we should be able to provide more services everywhere for survivors, or at least somewhere visible.”

More services are already coming. The UC Davis Police Department is introducing new safety initiatives this fall, including an expansion of its Safe Rides service to provide free all-night transportation home from campus.

Systemwide changes probably won’t come until 2015. UC President Janet Napolitano formed a task force this past summer to respond to recommendations from the federal and state governments. The team recently identified its goals, which includes establishing a confidential advocacy office on each campus by January.

In the meantime, Karen has a lawyer and is awaiting her court date. Her attacker was already dismissed by UC Davis, but she wants to see him in jail.

Ashley says she also would love to see her attackers in jail, but knows that won’t happen without forensic evidence. Instead, she’s staying in touch with Yang and hoping for some redemption that way. She’s also trying to enjoy life by being social and sleeping well again. Sleeping alone is hard, however, even in her new apartment.

“I know I should feel safe, but I think it has a lot do with the fact that they’re still out there,” she says. “And nothing has happened.”