Occidental featured in sexual assault documentary

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Author: Marina Dart

“The Hunting Ground,” a documentary released in Los Angeles theaters Feb. 27, explores the college sexual assault epidemic throughout the United States. Occidental is one of the campuses highlighted in the film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Jan. 23.

The documentary tells the story of Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who were sexually assaulted on campus. Upset by the administration’s lack of response to their reports of the assaults, the students appealed their cases to the Office of Civil Rights under the Title IX provision.

Since then they have formed End Rape on Campus (EROC), an organization that spearheads lawsuits against schools that allegedly fail to protect survivors of sexual assault. The movie highlights the women’s travels to institutions across the United States, helping other survivors of campus sexual assault file complaints against their own schools.

Occidental is one of the colleges featured in the film. In 2013, Politics Professor Caroline Heldman filed a Title IX complaint with the Office of Civil Rights on behalf of 37 students, charging the administration with having an inadequate response to sexual assault reports.

“The Hunting Ground” also examines four other institutions where the administration allegedly mishandled sexual assault cases—Harvard University, The University of Notre Dame, Florida State University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Additionally, it references the 94 other institutions currently under investigation by the Department of Education.

One of the film’s main criticisms of the Occidental administration, as well as the administrations of the other featured colleges and universities, is that its only concern has been protecting the school’s image rather than sexual assault survivors.

“The unfortunate story of sexual assault at Occidental College is that the administration had a handful of experts on the issue who really wanted to make a change, and instead of addressing the issue they spent a lot of money on P.R.,” Heldman said.

Although President Jonathan Veitch is featured in the film multiple times, he was not directly interviewed. The film’s producer, Amy Ziering, contacted President Veitch via email Dec. 18 for an interview. This request went unanswered.

According to Occidental’s Director of Communications and Community Relations James Tranquada, the lack of response was due to unclear time specifications.

“There was no deadline indicated, no sense of urgency. We left it until after we got back from winter break, and then at that point it was scheduled to premiere at Sundance. It appeared to us that the film was finished,” Tranquada said.

Heldman maintains that Occidental has much to improve regarding its handling of sexual assault reports on campus and hopes that the film will contribute to campus dialogue on the issue.

“I think that if we buy into either of the myths that I’ve heard a lot on campus, which is that we never had a problem or that everything’s been fixed, then it means that we’re not dedicated to doing the work that we need to do and that we need in order to actually become a national leader in this issue,” Heldman said.

Veitch agreed that progress still needs to be made at Occidental.

“I think Oxy has come a long way, but there is still much more for us to do … I hope that ‘The Hunting Ground’ will help build a broader awareness of the issue of sexual assault,” Veitch said via email.

According to the Huffington Post, more than 1,000 institutions have requested to screen the documentary on their campuses. Title IX Coordinator Ruth Jones also submitted a requested for “The Hunting Ground” to be screened at Occidental.

Several students who have seen the film agree with the idea.

“From the moment I saw it, I felt like it would be extremely important for Oxy students to see,” Wyatt Muma (first-year), who saw the film at its premiere during the Sundance Film Festival, said. “It really humanizes the story and makes it more intriguing and present than it might seem when you are just on campus.”

Other students believe that “The Hunting Ground” will act as a catalyst for further conversation about sexual assault on campus.

“One of the reasons why this film is so important and should be watched by all Oxy students [is that] it raises awareness to this epidemic,” Aidan Holliday (first-year) said. “[It] creates a platform for students to start having conversations and to work toward creating an environment that is safe for all students.”

Although the film could potentially negatively affect the school’s reputation, Heldman argues that it is beneficial for the school to be forced to deal with this issue so publicly.

“What a lot of people get wrong about campus rape is the idea that schools that have federal complaints are schools you should avoid. It’s actually the opposite,” Heldman said.

Instead, she commends Occidental students for the shedding light on the subject of campus sexual assault. Heldman also hopes that prospective students will be encouraged to attend Occidental for the activist community that made the problem so public.

Tranquada echoed this attitude.

“Because Oxy has a long history of student and faculty activism, it’s not surprising that people come to Oxy because people are willing to stand up and be counted,” Tranquada said. “I would hope that eventually the attention to Oxy would begin to reflect the kind of changes that we have made.”

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