Keeping campus rape quiet
UC Davis, Sacramento State resolve majority of sexual assault claims internally—by dismissing them
Inside of a Sacramento Superior Court holding cell, Christian Hirtzel stood with head bowed in an orange jumpsuit. Behind him, his victims and their families filled the courtroom’s rows, waiting for the judge’s ruling—waiting for this chapter of their lives to conclude.
A onetime theater arts student at American River College, Hirtzel was arrested January 22, following a yearlong investigation by the Los Rios Police Department into allegations that he extorted at least nine women, some of whom he once dated, into sending him nude photos under threats and intimidation during a period that spanned approximately two years. On August 2, the 21-year-old was sentenced to four years and eight months in state prison. When he gets out, Hirtzel will have to register as a sex offender for life. In his ruling, Judge Michael Bowman said Hirtzel’s crimes showed a “high degree of callousness” and “planted so many unseen scars.”
The stiff sentence, for a former college student who preyed upon his peers, is the exception that proves the rule.
According to newly available data obtained from the Sacramento area’s two universities, most college-related sexual assault allegations are rarely investigated by law enforcement and infrequently result in penalties for the accused.
While recent state legislation aims to change this, some are questioning whether the policies are crafted well enough. In the meantime, technology has created new opportunities for young people to be victimized.
In May, the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C., released staggering numbers about “sextortion” cases like the one above. Of the 78 cases the institute examined, at least 1,397 victims were identified, 71 percent of whom were minors. Much like the Hirtzel case, 14 percent of the cases included a mix of minors and adults. Also like Hirtzel, many of the defendants were college students who used social media or hacked computers to infiltrate their victims’ personal lives.
The most glaring finding was a familiar one, however. Like other sex crimes, sextortion perpetrators saw major disparities in criminal sentences. According to the study, some were prosecuted as child pornography cases, resulting in the stiffest sentences. Others, however, were prosecuted as extortion, stalking and even simple hacking.
Those disparities continue at both Sacramento State and UC Davis, according to figures obtained by SN&R.
In 2014, SN&R examined how seriously UC Davis investigated sexual assault claims. (See “Does UC Davis have a rape problem?” by Janelle Bitker, SN&R Feature, October 14, 2014.)
From 2011 to 2013, the university recorded an unprecedented 66 claims of sexual assault and rape on campus, landing the university atop the state’s rankings for reported sex crimes, according to the Washington Post, which gathered annual crime statistics—federally required record-keeping through the Clery Act—from every U.S. college with at least 1,000 students.
During that same period, Sacramento State recorded 12 reports of sexual assault and rape.
Statistically, not much has changed.
The most recent Clery data for UC Davis showed 13 reported sexual assaults and rapes in 2014, fifth highest in the state. (There were also 10 reports of fondling, incest or statutory rape that year.) Additionally, UCD recorded 29 reports of domestic violence (when the suspect and victim live together), dating violence (violence during courtship) and stalking that year.
At Sac State, reported sexual assaults increased from one in 2013 to five in 2014, Clery data showed. The local campus also saw 10 reports of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking in 2014.
But Clery data isn’t the only statistical source for college sexual crimes, and may actually underestimate the scope of the problem. While many sexual crimes go unreported, a large number are taken straight to the schools, through university police, which can prompt a criminal investigation, or to the campuses’ Title IX offices, which rarely do.
Each option has its merits, but both are far from perfect, according to UC Davis spokesman Andy Fells. “Students can talk to the police and try to go to trial,” Fell explained. “However, getting a conviction can be difficult, because you’re trying to convince a jury that a suspect is guilty.”
Reporting a sexual assault to the university rarely ends in a criminal trial, either. Rather, these alleged assaults are resolved internally, by the university’s Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs, with most complaints going nowhere.
UCD’s Title IX Office received 88 reports of sexual violence between July 2014 and June 2015. Eighteen were referred to judicial affairs for disciplinary action. The other 70 complaints were either deemed unfounded or weren’t proven to be a violation of campus policy.
Sac State’s Title IX Office received 29 reports of a sexual crime during the same 12-month span. Only 15 resulted in discipline against the accused.
The reason for the great discrepancy is simple. According to Fell, Clery data only accounts for offenses on campus and property controlled by the campus, whereas Title IX data includes reports off campus, too. Fell said neither report accurately depicts the extent of what’s happening at the university, and others across the country.
“It’s a complicated question as to which [data] better reflects the actual number of offenses,” Fells wrote in a follow-up email. “Bottom line, we do know that sexual assaults are under-reported.”
For schools like UC Davis and Sac State, which have more than 35,000 and 26,000 students, respectively, experts say it’s better when more sexual assaults are reported.
Sac State Title IX Coordinator William Bishop told SN&R that the university hopes people err on the side of caution when it comes to reporting sexual crimes. “We would rather have people report something that is wrong and let us decide if it’s inaccurate, than have someone not report an incident at all,” Bishop explained.
Both Sacramento-area universities also have a full-time sexual assault advocate on staff who helps support victims through the various processes.
Still, according to the data, penalties for alleged college sex crimes are rare. And when they do come, they’re relatively light.
UC Davis dismissed seven students or employees from the university, suspended seven and ordered one other to probation after a formal investigation. Three other cases resulted in no penalties.
At Sac State, 15 students or employees received discipline—suspension, dismissal, probation or a combination of the three.
In May, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer urged the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to begin tracking incidents of sextortion. Citing the Brookings report, she noted the estimated number of actual victims was even greater than the nearly 1,400 identified, with a figure somewhere between 3,000 and 6,500. “Yet, the true extent of this crime is largely unknown, as there are no federal efforts to specifically track the number of sextortion cases,” a release from her office stated.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers are pushing for more consistent penalties for sex offenders.
In June, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would ensure anyone convicted of rape receives a mandatory prison sentence. The effort followed the June 2 sentencing of Brock Turner, a Stanford swimmer charged with sexually assaulting an unconscious woman.
Turner initially faced two other counts, too: rape of an intoxicated person and rape of an unconscious person. Both charges, however, were dropped at a preliminary hearing after a DNA test showed no penile penetration—the loophole in California law that prevented more stringent sentencing.
Ultimately, the judge in the case, Aaron Persky, sentenced Turner to just six months. He served only half the time, leaving jail September 2. Following public outrage, Persky, at his own request, will no longer hear criminal cases.
Lawmakers have since introduced multiple bills intended to close the loopholes that allowed for Brock’s lesser sentence.
For instance, Assembly Bill 2888 and AB 29 would impose mandatory sentences as well as render any perpetrator convicted of raping an unconscious person ineligible for time served or a reduced sentenced because of “good behavior.” On August 29, the state Assembly approved AB 2888.
Critics, however, have some issues with the new proposal.
“We’ve seen this before,” said Natasha Minsker, a spokeswoman with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Lawmakers react to big stories and sentences like the Turner case, but they don’t think of the consequences.”
Minsker says AB 2888’s insistence on mandatory minimum sentencing won’t punish the Brock Turners of the world so much as penalize poor people of color who can’t afford Turner’s private attorneys.
The ACLU hasn’t taken an official stance on AB 29 because it has yet to be approved by a senate committee. But the proposed legislation could still run into trouble.
The bill would require those convicted of raping an unconscious person to serve their full sentences, without the possibility of release for good behavior. That’s in indirect conflict with Proposition 57, an initiative Gov. Jerry Brown placed on the November ballot, which would classify those convicted of raping an unconscious person or spouse as “nonviolent” offenders.
Still another bill, AB 701, which was approved August 24 by the state Assembly, would classify all forms of nonconsensual sex as rape. The ACLU opposed an earlier version of this bill before it was amended.
The bill would essentially align the state’s definition of rape with the FBI’s: “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person without the consent of the victim.”
Both AB 701 and AB 2888 await approval from Brown, who has until September 30 to sign or veto them.
Yet Minsker believes these new bills, especially AB 2888 and AB 29, still lack the focus they need to have a real impact.
“The focus needs to be on providing more support to victims and survivors, more training for law enforcement and first responders and more money for investigators to receive help solving these cases,” Minsker said.
Victims like in the Hirtzel case.
As he waited to hear his sentence last month in Department 61, seven months after his arrest—and after pleading no contest to various charges, including sexual extortion and possession of child pornography (two victims were minors at the time)—two of Hirtzel’s victims stood up to speak. Both women, holding back tears, told of how Hirtzel’s crimes affected them. One woman revealed that she had been manipulated and blackmailed into feeding Hirtzel’s sexual appetite for nude photos for years.
The man she said she once dated in middle school “owned” her, blackmailing her into sending nude photos after their breakup by threatening to publicize the ones she sent during their relationship. Eventually, she said, the extortion went from requesting more nude photos to demanding sex. Reading text messages from “Jeremy Wallace,” one of Hirtzel’s alleged pseudonyms, she said she felt trapped, with one message promising to “destroy your family if you rat on me.”
After the judge rapped his gavel, Hirtzel could only muster a groan as he learned of his fate.