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Occidental College settles in sexual assault cases

Occidental College reaches an agreement with women who say that officials bungled campus investigations.

September 18, 2013|By Jason Felch and Jason Song
  • Attorney Gloria Allred, seated, left, with Occidental College professor Caroline Heldman and Occidental students and others at an April news conference where they announced the filing of a complaint against Occidental over the college's handling of sexual assault allegations.
Attorney Gloria Allred, seated, left, with Occidental College professor… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Occidental College has quietly reached a monetary settlement with at least 10 current and former students who have alleged that the Eagle Rock liberal arts school repeatedly mishandled sexual assault accusations, according to three sources with knowledge of the agreement.

During confidential settlement talks last week, senior Occidental officials agreed to pay the women an undisclosed sum to avoid a lawsuit.

Under the terms of the pact, they are barred from discussing publicly the college's handling of their cases and participating in the Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition, a campus advocacy group of students and faculty that over the last year has been battling fiercely with the college administration over its handling of sex assault allegations.

The women, all represented by the firm of high-profile women's rights attorney Gloria Allred, were among 37 Occidental students and alumni who in April alleged in a federal civil rights complaint that the school deliberately discouraged victims from reporting sexual assaults, misled students about their rights during campus investigations, retaliated against whistle-blowers, and handed down minor punishment to known assailants who in some cases allegedly struck again. The settlement won't affect the federal action.

The federal complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, has since been revised to include allegations from an additional 13 people, including some supportive faculty members. A parallel complaint was filed the same month under the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to report campus crime.

Federal investigators are expected to visit the college in coming weeks to investigate both complaints, records show.

In a prepared statement on the Allred settlement, Occidental spokesman Jim Tranquada said:

"We cannot comment except to say that this matter has been resolved. It is a confidential matter and we intend to honor the confidentiality and privacy of those involved. The college continues to move ahead with its efforts to address this important issue and make Occidental a national leader in dealing with sexual misconduct."

After the federal complaints were filed, the college adopted an interim sexual misconduct policy and recently hired an advocate for abuse victims, Tranquada said. The college has created a 24/7 telephone hotline and expanded the preventative education programs for all students.

In an email, Allred declined to comment, repeating Tranquada's statement that "it is a confidential matter, and we intend to honor the confidentiality and privacy of those that are involved."

The Times has reviewed the federal complaints detailing the allegations of 10 of the women who settled their claims last week. They allege a pattern in which the college downplayed the incidents or tried to dissuade women from stepping forward.

Most of the men involved in the settled cases were ultimately found responsible for misconduct.

Not all of the incidents were reported to law enforcement, a decision left up to those who said they were victims.

According to the federal complaint, a female student who reported to administrators that she had been assaulted at a fraternity in February, said she was told by a school dean not to talk about the incident to prevent lawsuits against the college.

In addition, the complaint said, officials deliberately drew out the disciplinary proceedings. The case "fits a troubling pattern of school administrators running out the clock so alleged perpetrators who are found responsible can still complete their semester," the complaint alleges.

Throughout the complaint are allegations that men found responsible for sexual assaults at Occidental were given only minor sanctions.

In one case, a student admitted to administrators that he had sexually assaulted a woman in 2011 and went on to warn officials that other victims might come forward. The student was allowed to stay on campus while being barred from some campus activities and required to write an apology letter and a 15- to 20-page essay.

The final paper was "less than two and a half pages," according to the complaint. "The incredibly casually written paper was ridden with grammatical errors, incomplete sentences, and no works [footnotes] cited. It is an exemplary example of what a paper looks like that has been given zero effort, care or thought," the complaint alleges.

In other alleged cases, the sanctions did not prevent men from facing additional assault allegations.

One woman said she was raped in 2011 but did not report the assault for some time.

When she did make a report, the complaint states, she was told by staff members not to talk about the incident with anyone else because it would foment rumors.

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