College sexual misconduct reported at rates three times higher than comparable period in 2019

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The Academic Quad at Occidental College. Sarah Hoffman/The Occidental

Content warning: This article contains discussions of sexual misconduct on campus.

From Aug. 1 to Sept. 27 this year, 29 instances of sexual misconduct were reported to the Title IX office, more than a threefold increase in reported cases in comparison to the same time period in 2019, according to Title IX Coordinator Alexandra Fulcher. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 27, 2019, during the last comparable in-person semester, there were nine reports of sexual misconduct, Fulcher said. 

These statistics define sexual misconduct more broadly than the Interim Sexual Misconduct policy, and can include  non-consensual sexual acts, exploitation, dating violence, stalking or sexual or gender-based harassment which occurred on and off campus, according to Fulcher.

According to Jim Tranquada, director of communications and community relations for the college, in four of those 29 cases, survivor-victims chose to initiate formal Title IX investigations.

Secretary of the College Marsha Schnirring shared the Fall 2021 Board of Trustees Campus Update Report via campus-wide email Nov. 8, which included Fulcher’s findings that rates of sexual misconduct were three times higher than previous years.

Tirzah Blanche, Project SAFE manager and survivor advocate, said this increase in reports of sexual misconduct does not necessarily correlate to an increase in instances of sexual misconduct on campus, since sexual offenses are historically underreported.

“From my perspective, report rate and incident rate are very different things and I really caution against drawing a straight line between the two,” Blanche said via email. “When I hear that report rates are going up, it might be counterintuitive, but I actually think that’s a good thing, because it means that people aren’t staying in the shadows anymore.”

Mia Villegas (senior) has been a Project SAFE programming assistant for two years, and said the greater number of reports might indicate students’ greater willingness to come forward.

“We don’t know exactly how many cases existed, just how many cases were reported. So I don’t want to speak to the idea that there are, in general, more sexual assaults happening on campus this year,” Villegas said. “I do know that there’s more, I would say, student consciousness of it, so people feel more comfortable reporting. People feel more comfortable speaking out. I think that’s a good thing.”

However, according to Villegas, the pandemic could have increased the number of students who are less knowledgeable about consent, party culture and how to be active bystanders.

“I think, coming back from the pandemic, having two whole classes that have never lived on a college campus … and potentially experimenting with alcohol and drugs and being introduced to party culture — that definitely has an impact in the level of cases that we see,” Villegas said.

Each fall semester is a time of increased sexual violence on college campuses across the country. Approximately 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in the short time period between August and November known as the “Red Zone.” Occidental College, like many other institutions, has faced a “Double Red Zone” in the Fall 2021 semester, with two new classes of students on campus for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Some cases of sexual misconduct received by the Title IX office can include incidents that do not fall under the specific categories of sexual misconduct outlined in the college’s Interim Sexual Misconduct Policy. The 29 cases of sexual misconduct from Aug.1 to Sept. 27 can include both cases that do and do not fall under the purview of this policy, according to Fulcher.

According to Fulcher, examples of incidents which could be reported, but do not violate the Interim Sexual Misconduct Policy, can include unwanted touching that does not meet the college’s definition of fondling or non-consensual contact. Fulcher said one example of this would include the non-consensual touching of, for instance, a person’s shoulders or knee.

The 29 cases reported within the Aug. 1 to Sept. 27 timeframe may also include incidents that occurred days or even years prior, according to Fulcher.

“Some students, upon returning to campus and having to face that other person, decided to report to the college something that happened in like 2018, or 2019,” Fulcher said. “Maybe … upon coming back to campus, they felt like they needed to take that next step and report it to the college and have the college do something about it.”

According to Fulcher, Title IX reports can be filed by students and also by responsible employees when a student, faculty or staff member discloses an instance of sexual misconduct. All college employees, except for a few clearly designated confidential resources, are responsible employees on campus.

Title IX cases can involve people not affiliated with the college so long as at least one party is an Occidental staff member, faculty or student, according to Fulcher. Occidental community members can file cases against people outside of the Occidental community and vice versa.

According to Blanche, the 29 reported instances do not include reports made to the Project SAFE office. Project SAFE’s anonymized data are not made public, because many people utilize Project SAFE without ever reporting to Title IX, Blanche said.

“We know that a Title IX process isn’t going to work for every person or every situation, but regardless, every person deserves support and resources,” Blanche said.

According to Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Rob Flot, Student Affairs has been prioritizing mental health support and one-on-one meetings with students since their return to campus.

“[The increase in reports] tells me that we need to make sure that we have as many resources available for students, both complainants and respondents, as possible to address the issue,” Flot said.

In a campus-wide email Nov. 1, President Harry J. Elam Jr. outlined steps the college is taking to provide more resources for student survivors, including hiring new staff and developing additional trainings and resources for faculty and staff. According to the email, in January 2022, the college will publish and distribute an end-of-semester report outlining the reports received by the Title IX office this semester.

“Activism that increases awareness is important,” Tranquada said. “Sexual misconduct remains a problem at Occidental. It’s one that we’re actively trying to address. It’s a societal problem, of course — we have students who come to us as survivors already — but we need to focus on what we are doing here at Oxy because that’s somewhere that we can have an impact.”

Sexual violence has been a major focus of activism on campus this semester. Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition (OSAC) is hosting a demonstration Nov. 12 to raise awareness about sexual assault and demand more resources for students. The demonstration will take place from noon to 3 p.m. starting at the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC) steps.

Emmons 24/7 Confidential Hotline : (323) 341-4141

The Project SAFE/Survivor Advocate office located on the bottom floor of Stewart-Cleland Hall

Survivor Advocate: survivoradvocate@oxy.edu

Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition: oxysexualassaultcoalition1@gmail.com