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U.S. investigates handling of alleged sex assaults at USC

The Department of Education pursues an inquiry after a complaint was filed by students last spring criticizing USC's procedures in rape cases.

July 22, 2013|By Jason Song and Richard Winton
  • Tucker Reed, left, and Ariella Mostov, USC students who object to the university's handling of their reports of sexual assault, appear at a news conference Monday.
Tucker Reed, left, and Ariella Mostov, USC students who object to the university's… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating USC over its handling of alleged sexual assault and rape cases after students filed a complaint with the federal government, officials said Monday.

Two current USC students — both of whom allege being raped — said at a news conference that their 110-page complaint contains accounts from more than 100 students detailing problems with the university when handling reports of sexual assault. The complaint was filed last spring.

Many of the students "were blamed for their victimization and were forced to watch impotently as their cases were routinely misreported, misconstrued, mishandled or discounted entirely," said Tucker Reed, one of the co-signers of the complaint who recently completed her junior year.

Reed said she was raped by her former boyfriend in 2010. When she took her accusations to university officials in December 2012, she said, USC employees did not thoroughly investigate them and eventually dismissed the case.

"The process made me feel raped a second time," said Reed, 23, who is a theater major.

Reed said that her ex-boyfriend graduated in the spring. She has written extensively about her case on her blog and has also named and posted pictures of her ex-boyfriend. She said she hopes that the investigation by the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights would lead to USC improving its handling of cases. She would like the university to reopen her case.

It's unclear what action USC officials could take against the man.

Reed said she was interviewed by Los Angeles Police Department detectives. But the district attorney's office declined to bring a case, citing "insufficient evidence" against the man who Reed says raped her, according to law enforcement sources. Reed sued the man in civil court.

The USC case is the latest in a series of investigations by the civil rights division focusing on whether colleges are complying with guidelines in Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. In 2011, the Education Department sent a letter informing institutions that "sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX."

The department has opened investigations of Title IX offenses at UC Berkeley and Dartmouth, Swarthmore and Occidental colleges. A spokeswoman did not say how many similar cases the department was pursuing.

Two other current USC students also spoke at the news conference and said that the university's administration seemed reluctant to act.

Ariella Mostov, a student, said officials were "unwilling to make any accommodations at all" and declined to let her switch her schedule so she would not have to attend the same classes as the student she said assaulted her.

"I was outraged," she said.

In a written statement, Jody Shipper, USC's Title IX coordinator and executive director of the Office of Equity and Diversity, said the university looks forward to working with federal officials to address any concerns they may have.

"The university remains vigilant in addressing any issues promptly and fully as they arise," she said.

Linda Fairstein, who was a sex crimes prosecutor in New York and is now a senior advisor on college policies and sex crimes at K2 Intelligence, an investigative and consulting firm, said the problem isn't new but has been deliberately kept secret by colleges and universities for decades despite laws designed to deal with the issue.

"Students in college away from home for the first time are among the most vulnerable," she said.

Fairstein said an increase in reporting these allegations has been partially driven by social media and blogs.

"The events went viral. The victims I was seeing as prosecutor in the 1970s and 1980s were very isolated," she said. "But now they are empowered through the Web and it gives them the feeling they are not alone."

Fairstein said some schools are very proactive and are bringing in advisors to write new policies.

"Smart educators are actually reaching out for advice before they get a complaint like those at Occidental," she said.

Federal authorities began investigating Occidental College after a group of students, alumni and faculty filed a complaint in the spring against the school.

Afterward, Occidental President Jonathan Veitch announced several changes and said the college would have "a structured sexual-assault program at this fall's orientation that reflects revised policies and procedures."

jason.song@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

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