USC has been deficient in the prevention and investigation of campus rapes and must reform procedures to make victims more willing to report sexual assaults, a special committee of experts appointed by the university declared Wednesday.
The university's current system of handling sexual assault complaints often "leaves victims feeling unsupported" and without important rights, said the committee's report. Furthermore, the panel said USC has been perceived in some cases as shielding accused rapists because of their connections to school officials or faculty.
The report comes partly in response to incidents over the past few years, including allegations of a rape at a fraternity house and two lawsuits in which USC has been ordered to pay more than $3 million to women raped near campus facilities. It was issued at a time when USC is nervous about its image, particularly after damage in the recent riots came close to campus gates.
The unpaid "external review committee," headed by Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica Hospital, detailed 47 ways USC could improve campus security, student awareness and disciplinary hearings. USC officials said they welcomed the report and intended to adopt most of its recommendations.
Abarbanel said Wednesday that USC showed courage in appointing the independent panel. Stressing that the report was not an investigation of particular crimes, she said she could not determine whether USC's campus is more dangerous than others.
Co-author of a book about sexual assaults at colleges, Abarbanel estimated that 90% of such incidents nationwide are never reported and that most are so-called acquaintance rapes by other students, not assaults by strangers.
James M. Dennis, USC's vice president for student affairs, said that many of the recommendations are "simply fine-tuning existing policies" while others will require further review. He declined to say which, if any, might be rejected by the university.
In a prepared statement, USC President Steven B. Sample, declared "we are determined to take a leadership role in trying to create an assault-free environment for all our students."
The report, in one of its strongest items, said that some students think internal investigations of some campus rapes were tainted by conflicts of interest. The panel urged USC to hand over to an independent counsel any cases with such problems.
The report referred to a case in which the son of a USC trustee was an alleged assailant. That is widely thought to refer to a 1990 incident, disclosed by The Times, at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity in which a young woman claimed she was raped by a member while others taunted her. No one was prosecuted, but the alleged victim is suing the fraternity members. Her family and some police complained the case was scuttled by a top police official who was a USC alumnus--a charge the official and university denies.
While the committee made no judgment about the conflict-of-interest charges, Abarbanel said, "The university is going to be vulnerable if there is a perceived conflict."
USC often waits for police and prosecutors to complete rape cases before starting campus probes, the report found. Since that can be a lengthy wait, the committee urged USC to consider starting its own disciplinary reviews sooner. In one recent case, campus discipline took two months, during which the victim and the accused person continued to live in the same residence hall--an intolerable situation, according to the report.
The 79-page report noted that juries in recent cases decided that USC security was inadequate and ordered the school to pay large awards to women who were assaulted outside university buildings. The committee did not thoroughly review security measures but said that the school should inform students and staff about recent crimes as a precaution. One case cited the failure of campus police to warn dormitory residents of an attempted assault. Two nights later the same suspect raped another student.
The other committee members were attorney Aileen Adams, counsel for the rape treatment center at Santa Monica Hospital; Los Angeles Municipal Court Judge Kenneth R. Freeman; Lauren Hines, who teaches about self-defense and sexual assault; Tina Oakland, a UCLA administrator who helped write that school's rules on sexual assault, and Sgt. Tom Sirkel of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who has investigated many sex crimes.
The review committee, appointed last June, conducted interviews with students who were victims of sexual assault and also with their parents, USC staff and faculty. The panel complained that USC lawyers did not allow it full access to case files. Some victims were found through advertisements in the student newspaper.